A Conversation With Fr. Joe McCullough

Regular readers of this blog will recall that about three weeks ago, I featured an article based on the 1972 murder of a 17-year-old North Belfast Catholic, Patrick McCullough who was gunned down by Loyalists, apparently members of the UVF, in June 1972 near his home close by the Westland Road interface, then as now one of Belfast’s most dangerous spots. What brought my attention to that case was a very touching letter that a younger brother, Fr. Joe McCullough had written to the Irish Times.

His brother’s murder is still unsolved some forty years on, he wrote, and the recent trial of people found guilty of killing black teenager Stephen Lawrence in London, whose murder had originally gone un-investigated thanks to rampant racism in the ranks of the Metropolitan police, brought his own brother’s death back to him. His point was that the same sort of racism that infected the police in London also affected the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast although in their case institutional anti-Catholic bias explained their indifference to murders like that of his brother. And perhaps also sympathy with the killers who, after all, were targeting members of the community from which the IRA sprang.

Fr. Joe’s point was twofold. An expression of dismay and disappointment at the efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) whose response to his concerns over his brother’s unresolved murder he described as ‘abysmal’. And a demand that the conduct of the RUC in investigating or rather not investigating killings like that of his brother ought to be officially scrutinised, in much the same way as the Met was probed in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s death.

The contrast between the HET’s cavalier treatment of Patrick McCullough’s death and the resources and energy being poured into the pursuit of Boston College’s oral history archive was stark and persuaded me to take up Patrick McCullough’s case. Patrick McCullough was just an ordinary Belfast Catholic, one of scores who were being picked off weekly by Loyalists back in those days. But he and people like him carry no political clout and their cases will write no headlines nor make or destroy careers.

The Boston College probe, however, could lead to the political disgrace of Gerry Adams, long an enemy and target of the more redneck ex-RUC types by enmeshing him in the disappearance of Jean McConville, who was kidnapped and shot dead after apparently admitting her role as a British Army agent in Divis Flats. She was killed six months after Patrick McCullough but the contrast in subsequent treatment – subpoenas and the weight of the US government mobilised for her case while Patrick McCullough’s languishes in inactivity – is surely instructive about the truth recovery system that the British and their political allies in the power sharing government have adopted.

Anyway, I thought it would be useful and instructive to talk to Fr. Joe in a little more detail about himself, his family, the death of his brother and the lessons we can draw from it all.

Fr. Joe is a member of the Kiltegan Fathers, or more properly St Patrick’s Missionary Society, a Co Wicklow based missionary order which was founded in 1932 and is particularly active in Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Apparently there is a strong link between the Holy Family parish of North Belfast and the Kiltegan Fathers; eight men from Holy Family joined the order at the same time he did.

There were fifteen in his family, nine boys and six girls and Patrick was the first-born and therefore special in the eyes of his parents and his siblings. They lived in Marsden Gardens which overlooks Belfast Waterworks, an area that was in the midst of the most violent part of Belfast when the Troubles broke out.

The McCullough’s were a respectable, church-going, hard-working family. Their father, George, ran a small painting and decorating firm, was hired as the first housing officer for the Newington Housing Association and he was also clerk of works for the Belfast Education Board. He was also a devout Catholic, a past president of the St Vincent de Paul Society and National President of the Catholic Young Men’s Society of Ireland. His children all did well in life and are working in either the legal profession, civil service, the Church, medicine, journalism, business or teaching. Their mother, Cassie devoted her life, as Irish mothers do, to her children.

They are precisely the sort of people who give society an essential stability and, as Fr. Joe tells it, the story of how the family was treated by the authorities since Patrick was killed provides a case study in how conflicts like that in Northern Ireland start and are sustained for so long. Alienate people like the McCullough’s, as the RUC and the British Army did over the years and now as the PSNI and HET has, and you have a recipe for endless strife.

Fr. Joe joined the Kiltegan Fathers in 1984 and was ordained in 1991 but he didn’t always want to be a missionary priest. When he left school, he studied theatre at the London Guildhall School of Acting via the Maura Brown School in Belfast but decided eventually that the footlights were not for him although he continued his education, picking up two Masters degrees en route. While in North Belfast as a youngster he had contact with the Kiltegan Fathers – “I met some of those guys and they impressed me with their stories and what they were doing in Africa” – and so he took the metaphorical bus to Wicklow. He has spent most of his life with the society working in South Africa but returned recently after his father died and his mother fell ill, and now works as a chaplain at a cancer hospital as part of a palliative care team for young cancer victims near London.

The sudden death of his oldest brother Patrick has clearly never left him. “He was born on 17th of August, 1955. He was an interesting boy, but he had been born with spina bifida. He had to have this huge operation at eight months and he could have died under the knife. It was a kind of a miracle that he survived it. In 1969 when only 14 he nearly drowned when his younger brother Gerard, drowned when the family were on holiday at a caravan park at Ballyhalbert on the Co Down coast. Then he was cruelly cheated of a second chance at life when three years later he was killed by loyalists”.

According to an excellent report by Irish News reporter Sharon O’Neill, Patrick McCullough was chatting with his girlfriend and some other friends at a street corner on Atlantic Avenue when gunmen fired from a passing car – a drive-by killing in American urban parlance. He was hit in the heart and died almost immediately.

“I was seven when it happened. I remember it very starkly. Half the family were on holiday in Cushendall, Co Antrim with my mother. She had us down there with the younger half of my family. My father was in Belfast because Patrick had just started working in the Irish News as a trainee compositor, his first job. My mother had gone up to Belfast, there was kind of trouble around so she had left us with other family members & my eldest sister and her friends at our holiday house in Cushendall. Now the previous week I remember Patrick visiting us, he was all excited about his new job. He had brought us gifts of beach wear and beach sandals which he’d bought with his first paycheck.

“Then on the…he was killed on the Friday, 23rd of June and in the early hours of the morning we were all awoken by family relatives, and at the time they didn’t say anything to us, we were just packed into cars and we were taken first of all to cousins of mine in Glenarm around the coast and then on to Belfast. It was a Saturday morning when we arrived at our house on the Cavehill Road and my memory is being taken to a relative who told us that our brother had died and then being taken to…my mother was very anxious to see us and when she did see us, she was in a very fragile state. She was in hospital and she was sedated but my memory is that she was released, she’d just been released and of course she got hugely emotional when she met her children, you know. My memory is of her just breaking down.

“As far as the police goes they didn’t meet us, they didn’t even come to meet my family. There were no explanations. My father did tell me that nobody came afterwards to explain what was being done, why he was killed. Certainly in relation to the investigation, it was non-existent. I was recently talking to a police friend of mine here in London about the whole thing. Who was the senior investigating officer? Were there witnesses? Did they take witness statements? Was the scene forensicsed at all? These are questions that were raised.

“Before that I made a submission, an oral submission to the Patten Commission in Ballycastle on these points that I make in my letter about the lack of an inquiry. I don’t think it was Lord Patten himself but a former Boston police officer, a lady (Kathleen O’Toole). When I gave my submission, she was there and it was quite an emotional place because there were all types of people there who had been affected. There were people from the army, the police, relatives and then I was there. I brought up the points about lack of investigation.

“Now after the Patten Commission I went back to South Africa. Then at the time the Historical Enquiries Team was set up I wrote to the Chief Constable, I think it was Hugh Orde. I got a letter back from one of his…a secretary or whoever saying that they had received the letter and they would be handing it on to the Historical Enquiries Team. Now I got a letter from the HET saying they had received this and they were looking into it and they would contact me. But I never heard anything from them. That was maybe around 2005 that I wrote to them. I remember being quite angry when the letter came back. It was topped and tailed, standard sort of letter. I just lost confidence in the whole thing. I have heard nothing since from either the PSNI or the HET.

“I also sent my letter to the Irish News. They contacted me last week while I was on holiday and they wanted to make a story of the letter. Anyway I contacted my brother James who is a barrister in Dublin and he said: ‘Well, what’s the point? Because they’ve lost the forensics, there’s no confidence in the HET’. And my brother James was very close to his brother Patrick and he was at the scene that night, I believe, and it had a profound effect upon him.

“Patrick was the first-born and special to my parents. He was such a special kid. I just remember him being so loving, so gentle, so protective, so funny and humorous. I think when he died it had such a profound effect on my parents. They never recovered from it and I suppose it had a profound effect upon all of us, you know. But there was absolutely no support (from the authorities). The only support we got, the only thing that kept us together was the local parish priest, Fr. McGarry, Patrick McGarry, a hero of a man. He was in the thick of it there in North Belfast and as my brother James said at my father’s funeral, he was holding the line for the Catholics.

“You know the Army came to the house not long after his death. What were they there for? What did they come to our house for? Why did they come into the street in Saracens in the early hours of the morning? I believe they came to try to plant stuff. They came into the house, my father remonstrated with them and only that the priest was contacted and he came right away and insisted that they get out. There were senior Army officers there. Their given reason was that they were searching the street for arms, there was activity somewhere. As far as I know they only searched our house. It wasn’t that long after his funeral, that’s for sure. This happened perhaps a week or ten days after his death.

“Thinking back later, you know, were they trying to somehow suggest he was involved in the paramilitaries? Maybe plant something in the house? To justify his death, that he was somehow involved. I draw a clear distinction between innocent, non-combatant victims. There was a huge effort on the part of the security forces in a lot of these cases I believe to somehow imply that they were involved and that therefore they were legitimate targets.

“And, as I was saying to my brother James and we were just talking about it last week, it was very clear to my parents, the attitude of the police and the army was, ‘You raise your head about this, you stir a fuss about this and you’ll be shot too. You’ll all lose your lives.’ And the fear, the fear was awful. My father had to get one brother to New Zealand, Jim down to his aunt in Co. Wicklow in a convent, to get them away from all that. The harassment from the security forces afterwards was constant even for myself. My memories of going to school and being stopped by the UDR. There was one occasion I was going to school, I was lifted by the UDR, searched, spreadeagled. I was only a teenager and they dropped me off in a staunchly Protestant area in the knowledge that I would be in danger there.

“One of the problems is that the evidence in his case was allegedly destroyed. I wrote in my letter that it was a fire that destroyed his file but James reminded me it was some police barracks in Ballynafeigh (in South Belfast) and it was bombed and the written records were apparently destroyed in the bomb. How was that possible? Usually there’s not much fire in a bomb.

“The Historical Enquiries Team is a disaster. It is the police investigating the police. It’s retired police officers who are going to stick to their own. It’s ridiculous. How can they be any way balanced or not prejudiced? I mean it just will not do. The HET will not do in my view. What brought it up for me again was the Stephen Lawrence case but the British state turned a blind eye because we’re just Catholics? Or they’ll say it was a war and was a different situation. The police are supposed to reflect how a state is. You need someone who is independent to come in and take a close look at all this, the ethos and behaviour of the RUC.”

Fr. Joe’s letter was published in the Irish Times on January 16th and the HET’s full-time press officer must have spotted it and pressed the button marked, ‘We better do something about this otherwise we’ll really look bad’. Two weeks ago, the HET contacted him and said they would be willing to meet him in London to discuss “their information” on Patrick’s murder.

Fr. Joe continues the story in an email message sent at the weekend: “They also informed me they had sent a letter to me in London (in) July 2011. Not true. I received no such letter. I asked the nature of their information since we were informed no such info (sic) existed. This officer proceeded to quote over the phone info from what I believed to be information from the pathologists report. He seemed to think this was forensic evidence and I had reason to disagree with him on a number of issues.

“He then informed me that he had a very positive response from all the other families he was dealing with and that he never experienced sectarianism in (the) RUC/PSNI. I informed him he ‘hadn’t a clue, no idea and not the first notion of what I was talking about in relation to the experience of my family and many others like us’.”

So there we are. The Historical Enquiries Team, charged with the most delicate and sensitive of post-Good Friday Agreement tasks, pronounces the RUC free of institutional sectarianism, a sweeping judgement that flies in the face of the daily experience of many thousands of Northern Catholics and families like that of Patrick McCullough’s over the entire history of the Northern Ireland state.

This is the unit that is supposed to be investigating some thirty or so years of killings, a significant number of which were carried out with the active collusion of  RUC officers, especially in the Special Branch, and many others that took place with the passive co-operation or at best indifference of the police force charged with maintaining law and order impartially.

If there was no sectarianism in the RUC, why did the Troubles start in the first place? Did we imagine those television pictures of RUC men wielding batons against civil rights marchers in Derry like the Alabama State troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge? Did we imagine the RUC roaring through the Falls in August 1969, howling Loyalist mobs on their heels, firing Browning machine guns into public housing projects? If what we saw in those and subsequent years was not institutional sectarianism, then what is?

If there was no sectarianism in the RUC what kept the Provisional IRA going for some forty years, what was the fuel that kept its fire going? If there was no sectarianism why was it necessary to draft in Lord Patten and a panel of international experts to recommend root and branch reform of the force in order to copper fasten the Good Friday Agreement and secure final IRA decommissioning? Why was it necessary to change the RUC’s name? Why was it necessary to impose quotas to increase Catholic numbers? Why was it necessary to abolish units like the Special Branch?

There’s another thing. This is an HET officer talking to a Catholic priest whose brother was killed in a state whose police force, as far as he and his family were concerned, basically didn’t give a damn about who killed his brother or why and whose military possibly conspired to malign his memory and reputation, when they weren’t arresting and dumping his siblings in hostile areas where they could be torn to pieces.

And he tells the priest that, in his experience, there was no sectarianism in the RUC  – effectively dismissing the priest’s life experience as meaningless and that of thousands many more Nationalists who lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This was an extraordinary thing to tell Fr. Joe, a remark so full of insensitivity not to say arrogance that it’s hard to know where to begin. In my experience when people say or do such things it is usually because they know there will be no comeback from his bosses, because they think the same way too. He is merely expressing a consensus, reflecting a police canteen ethos that has clearly seeped into the HET’s soul; it’s what they all agree about in the PSNI canteen. The RUC were decent cops; the problem was the terrorists, especially the IRA ones.

So how can a unit like the HET which eats and drinks such views daily and has amongst its investigating officers people who have prejudged a crucial issue like the institutionalised sectarianism of the RUC be trusted to properly investigate killings which a large section of the population of Northern Ireland believes happened with the connivance, approval or insouciance of the RUC? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ” Go figure.

The HET’s press person was quick to spot Fr. Joe’s letter to the Irish Times and pressed one button. But she entirely forgot to press the one next to it marked: “Is there something else we forgot to do, because if we have, then we’ve really fucked up?”

In her Irish News piece describing the killing of Patrick McCullough, Sharon O’Neill had this to say about the identity of those who shot the teenager dead. “Although no-one admitted responsibility”, she wrote, “it is believed the UVF was behind the murder and further inquiries by the Irish News have established that the identity of the killers was well known, yet not one person was arrested or charged.”

The Historical Enquiries Team is supposed to be investigating unresolved killings in chronological order, starting in 1969 and moving forwards to 1998. Since the Jean McConville disappearance happened in December 1972 and that case now absorbs much of their resources and funds, one can presume that the HET has had a look at Patrick McCullough’s case some time ago and finding it fallow ground decided to move on.

But what about Sharon O’Neill’s intriguing information about the killers’ identity? I happen to know that the HET does trawl through newspaper reports of killings to ask journalists about what they had written because last June or July, not long after they served subpoenas on Boston College, one of their detectives traced me to New York to ask me about a killing carried out by the British Army’s Mobile Reconnaisance Force (MRF) back in the early 1970’s, a drive-by shooting I had written about in Hibernia magazine. The victim was a Catholic vigilante called Patrick McVeigh but I had written that locals suspected the real target was someone else, a prominent member of the Belfast IRA.

Could I help the HET, the English detective asked, and name the intended victim for them? Hmmmm! My mind whirred suspiciously. How convenient would it be for the HET if or when the day comes when I refuse to assist them verify the Boston College tapes for evidential purposes that they would be able to say, ‘Well Mr Moloney had no difficulty helping us out last year, so why not now’? I wouldn’t have helped anyway but I took some satisfaction in sending him off with a flea in his ear.

Leaving that aside the purpose of this story is to show that if the HET is capable of delving back into the dusty archives of the long deceased Hibernia to dig out obscure stories written by journalists who no longer live in Ireland then surely it would have no difficulty tracing Sharon O’Neill’s piece about the Patrick McCullough killing.

After all it was published in the still extant Irish News and appeared in September 2003, not that long ago and Sharon O’Neill appears on the TV news in Belfast most nights of the week. It took me less than a minute of searching on Google to find it so presumably the HET could do the same. And having found the article it would take another five minutes at most to discover where Sharon now worked, locate the phone number of Ulster Television, dial it and ask the woman herself if she could provide those names to Dave Cox and his lads.

So last week I rang Sharon and asked her if the HET had done just that:

Me: “Have you ever been approached by the PSNI or the HET about that reference in your article to the fact that the names of the killers were well known?”

S O’N: “No. Never. I would remember that. Definitely not.”

Well, Sharon, I guess that like Fr Joe McCullough, that after they read this post someone from the HET just might be calling you any day soon to ask you a question they should have asked years ago. By no means am I suggesting you help them, in fact I hope you don’t, because we are journalists after all, not policemen; it is not our job. But the HET most definitely has a responsibility to ask you the question and they haven’t. It is such an obvious lead that to neglect it in such a way must call into doubt the sincerity of the HET’s recent assurances to Fr. Joe McCullough.

Nice one, HET. Nice one.

4 responses to “A Conversation With Fr. Joe McCullough

  1. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/violence/bruce.htm

    A useful analysis is set out in the chapter from the book
    Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland
    by Steve Bruce (1992)
    ISBN 0 19 285256 Paperback 311pp

  2. audrey ardern-jones

    I have just read this incredible story and am revulsed by the cover up – the in depth long lasting affect that the murder of young Patrick must have had for his family is beyond belief. If names of the perpetrators were known at the time, then they must be sort out and punished. Congratulations to you for taking up this story, I think it is essential that journalists take up the baton for these poor families.

  3. Pingback: Goodbye Dave Cox And Good Riddance! | The Broken Elbow

  4. Pingback: Early Retirement of head of PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) « Boston College Subpoena News

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