He was just another catholic

18 January 2004

Article looking at the murder itself, the political context and the investigation

The Murder.

At 11.27 on the night of 11 May 1997, Sean Brown set the alarm at the Wolfe Tone GAA clubhouse on the edge of Bellaghy, Co Derry, and locked the gates. Loyalists had burned the clubhouse down a couple of times. Security was important. He lived on Castle Street and would have been home in a few minutes. But his killers were waiting for him.

There was a struggle. At 61, Brown was a big, strong man, fit to have done the maracycle the previous year. He may have been shot there and then. Alive or dead, he was bundled into his car. The loyalist gang then drove in a three car convoy through Toomebridge, past the huge RUC station there, and onto the M2 motorway.

Just after midnight, a farmer phoned the fire brigade. There was a burning car in a field up a lane off the motorway. The firefighters found Brown's body lying beside his car. He had been shot six times.

Bridie Brown couldn't sleep. She'd known her husband would be later than usual - there'd been a football match on so the regular Monday night committee meeting had run an hour late. But he should have been home before midnight. In the early hours, she went out to look for him.

"She went down to the club, and then she was wandering around," said Damien Brown, the couple's son. They had 4 sons and two daughters, all grown up. "The police stopped her on the road. They were looking for her house but they had the wrong address. At 6.30 she rang me. She said, 'You'd better come down. Your Da never came home last night.'"

Outside, the police told Brown only about the burning car. "One of them came into the house after me. My sister was coming down the stairs," said Brown. "The policeman said to me, "What's SHE crying about?" Then he started asking me if he hadn't seen me somewhere before, like in a police station. I told him to go. Another one came in. He just said, "Fear the worst." "

The murder shocked Ireland. The Brown family was well known in GAA circles, and Brown had been an outstanding figure in his community. He was an instructor at the Institute of Mechanical Engineering in Ballymena, and took a personal interest and pride in his students. He was the sort of man people turned to. If they needed some hard-to-find part for their car, he'd make it for them. He was a great organizer. He'd greet the 12 year old daughter of his protestant neighbours, the Smiths, with a big smile: "Hello, Fiona. How was school today?"

The priest read a poem by Fiona at the funeral. It included the line, "Sean was a very good neighbour and a very good friend, too…"The president of the GAA, Joe McDonagh said the murder was "an outlandish and outrageous act". New Labour had just come to power in Britain, and the new security minister, Adam Ingram, issued a statement condemning the murder as a "pointless and barbaric act." The then Taoiseach, John Bruton, called it a "sectarian outrage."

In 1996, Brown had organized a celebration in the club after local man, Seamus Heaney, won the Nobel prize for literature. He presented the poet with a painting of Lough Beg and the countryside where they'd both grown up. Bridie, too, is from the area. The family has deep local roots.

Heaney sent a powerful tribute: "He was a man of integrity and goodwill…he represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word reconciliation…this was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks call the 'miasma', the stain of spilled blood."

The family believes Sean Brown was chosen by his murderers precisely because of his high standing in the community. "He was a model citizen, a civil servant for 20 years, a man who made a big effort to involve both sides in any event he organized," said Brown. "All our family has an many protestant friends as catholics. The protestants of this town were disgusted and ashamed about this murder. Those that did it wanted to create as much tension in Bellaghy as possible at that time. It was, in a local way, like shooting Nelson Mandela."

The Political Context.

"You'll reap a bitter harvest," warned the Reverend Willie McCrea when he lost his mid Ulster seat at Westminster to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness in May 1997, just 10 days before the murder of Sean Brown.

A week after the murder, Sinn Fein won additional seats in the local council elections, and McCrea again warned that there would be a "a price to pay". He said, "Two out of three of the nationalist community in Mid Ulster voted for murder and they will live to regret it."

A local GAA spokesman said this was a "very ominous, very provocative" statement. McGuinness demanded that McCrea spell out what he meant. "His words are being interpreted as an encouragement to the loyalist murder gangs," he said.

McCrea, a firebrand Free Presbyterian preacher, and saccharine gospel singer, had controversially appeared on a platform with Billy Wright in 1996. Wright, aka King Rat, was the leader of one of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force's most terrifying murder gangs, though he had only minor criminal convictions.

After Wright defied the UVF ceasefire and murdered a catholic to advance the cause of the Orange Order at Drumcree, the UVF threatened to kill him. McCrea defended his right to "freedom of speech."

Bellaghy has a reputation as a staunch republican place. The IRA hungerstriker, Francis Hughes, came from the area, as did INLA leader, "Mad Dog" Dominic McGlinchey. However, the village used to be almost half protestant, though by 1997 it had become 80% nationalist. It had a "concerned residents" group, set up in 1996 to oppose Orange and loyal order parades through the village. Sean Brown and his family were not involved in this, or in any political groups.

A week before the murder, the Royal Black Preceptory was banned from parading through the village centre. A spokesman for the residents group said tensions were at "fever pitch" because of a high security force presence.

By May 1997, the Orange Order and its supporters, including Wright's new Loyalist Volunteer Force were gearing up for another confrontation at Drumcree. Paisley said it was "a matter of life or death, freedom or slavery".

The so-called "Orange Volunteers" claimed the Brown murder. This is one of the militia style names the LVF, a loose association of killers, uses. The Orange Order had plans to parade through Bellaghy on 22 June 1997, and a counter-demonstration was planned. The route, which would have passed the Brown's house. was later changed. The Order was allowed down the Garvaghy Road from Drumcree after chief constable Ronnie Flanagan said that otherwise, catholics might be killed.

It was DUP politician, Sammy Wilson, who said that many protestants regarded the GAA as "the IRA at play." Bellaghy's clubhouse was one of many that were burnt out by loyalists over the years. In 1988, the UDA murdered Co Down GAA chairman, Jack Kielty. After the Brown murder, GAA members were advised to be wary. Derry footballer, Fergal McCusker said people should be vigilant and take common sense precautions. He was to be murdered less than a year later.

In July 1997, Paisley said the "entire pan nationalist front", which includes the GAA, " was united behind the beast of fascism, the IRA." In December, the LVF murdered a Co Antrim team manager, Gerry Devlin, possibly using the same gun used to murder Brown. In the same month, it murdered Tyrone GAA player, Seamus Dillon. In January the following year, it murdered Belfast GAA member, Terry Enright and McCusker.

The Irish News wrote that the murder of Sean Brown "struck at the heart of Ireland." His funeral was huge. But newly elected British prime minister, Tony Blair, did not mention it in the speech he made that day, his first major speech on NI since the election. Nor did any government minister attend the funeral.

The Investigation.

"Right from the start of the investigation, we just felt the attitude was, 'He was just another catholic. What does it matter?' That was always in the back of my mind. I think every nationalist in NI has that feeling about the police force",

said Damien Brown of the RUC investigation of his father's murder.

"We had daily contact at first, but after a couple of weeks it just dwindled away. They'd tell us things, mention witnesses they said were important, but then if you asked again, they'd seem to have forgotten they ever told us that. They told us they thought it was the LVF and they arrested six people two weeks after the murder, but they let them go."

"They didn't seem to interview people who seemed, from what we heard, to have seen or heard things. They didn't seem to follow things up. They said some of the GAA weren't co-operative, but we know even of people who'd been in jail who went to talk to them."

The convoy including the murdered man's car drove past the RUC station in Toomebridge, with its state of the art surveillance equipment. Sean Brown was either being held against his will by this stage, or he was dead in one of the cars. There were frequent checkpoints outside the station, which marks the boundary between the east and the west of NI.

"It is weird they took him away and then to go that way. I wouldn't try to get over Toomebridge with red diesel in my car," said Damien. "How were they so sure it would be alright? It makes you think."

There is also the dread that there was local involvement in the murder.

"The meeting was an hour late that night. They must have known. They had to hang around. People take stock of a strange car about the place. The police never said if they'd interviewed any local loyalists. After a while, they seemed to be saying, there's no hard evidence, unless we get an informer."

"They kept talking about things the IRA had done that they'd investigated. There was just an anti-nationalist feel to the thing. You were a second class citizen. The whole investigation was amateurish. Then the chief constable never even responded to the coroners letter [see article above]. We were getting nowhere until the Ombudsmans office was set up."

" We just want to know what happened and who did it, though I don't think anyone will ever be charged at this stage. It won't bring my father back, but it might bring us some peace of mind. A person said to me, you just learn to live with it, it never goes away."