UVF murder families still want truth, 40 years on

Noel O'Dowd (left) with his father Barney O'Dowd

Noel O'Dowd (left) with his father Barney O'Dowd

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Members of two families devastated by a loyalist murder squad on the same night of bloodshed have said their desire for truth has not waned four decades on.

In January 1976, the Reaveys and O’Dowds – two Catholic families living within 15 miles of each other in Co Armagh – each lost three loved ones at the hands of a notorious UVF gang reputed to contain dozens of rogue security force members.

Eugene Reavey with pictures of his murdered brothers (left to right) Anthony, John Martin and Brian

Eugene Reavey with pictures of his murdered brothers (left to right) Anthony, John Martin and Brian

Brothers Declan, 19, and Barry O’Dowd, 24, and their uncle Joe, 61, were shot dead by members of the Glenanne gang at a family gathering in Ballydougan, near Gilford, on the night of January 4. Declan and Barry’s father Barney, a member of the SDLP, was seriously injured in the hail of bullets.

The attack took place only minutes after brothers Anthony, 17, Brian, 22, and John Martin Reavey, 24, were shot at their home near Whitecross. Brian and John Martin were killed instantly while Anthony died weeks later.

The six sectarian killings, which are among around 130 attributed to the Glenanne gang in the Troubles, happened during a period of intense violence in the wider Armagh area.

The following day a little-known republican paramilitary group, widely suspected to be a front for the on-ceasefire IRA, shot dead 10 Protestant workmen outside the south Armagh village of Kingsmills after ambushing their minibus.

On the 40th anniversary of the O’Dowd and Reavey murders, relatives have reflected on the night that changed both families forever.

Declan and Barry O’Dowd’s brother Noel said he has “no doubt” security force collusion was at play.

Senior UVF commander Robin “the Jackal” Jackson (now dead) was widely suspected as one of those involved in the shooting though never charged.

“I don’t hold out much hope anyone will ever be brought to justice,” said Mr O’Dowd.

“But I would just like to know some answers. I would like to know who planned it, where did it come from, who pin-pointed us?

“Why was our family targeted? Nobody could have got to us without local involvement. I would just like to know answers – how high did this go?

“We have always known there was security force involvement in it – where was it sanctioned and why?”

Mr O’Dowd, who is cousin of Sinn Fein’s Stormont Education Minister John O’Dowd, has worked with victims’ lobby group the Pat Finucane Centre in a bid to find out the extent of the Glenanne gang’s activities. The gang was so-called because one of its bases was a farmhouse in Glenanne, near Markethill, Co Armagh.

“The Glenanne gang were committing murder with complete impunity, they were killing people all over Tyrone, Down and Armagh,” said Noel O’Dowd.

“It just escalated and escalated. It would be very important to know the answers even though I believe no one will ever stand in court.”

After Barney O’Dowd recovered from his injuries, which included the loss of a kidney, he and wife Kathleen moved the family away from Northern Ireland, to Co Meath in the Irish Republic. He is now 92 but still is involved in the family’s campaign for truth, attending regular meetings with the Pat Finucane Centre.

“My parents were remarkable,” said Noel O’Dowd.

“Faith is what got my mother through. She died in 1999. My father came through it all with great fortitude and dignity. He holds no bitterness over what happened.”

Eugene Reavey says he knows the names of the five men who murdered his brothers, but concedes that those of them who are still alive are unlikely to face justice.

It is his belief up to 100 renegade security force members were involved either directly or indirectly with the Glenanne gang.

“I would say that prosecutions are out of the window,” he said.

“But most of these men were well thought of in their community and I would like them to be named and shamed for what they were – for they weren’t anybody to be looked up to.”

For Mr Reavey, the loss of his three brothers was exacerbated by the treatment he says his family was subjected to by the security forces in the wake of the killings.

He said this included his mother being verbally abused and harassed by soldiers as she brought her son’s bodies home from the morgue and a “black propaganda” whispering campaign insinuating his brothers were in the IRA.

“The police peddled the lie that our boys were in the IRA and they played that game for a long, long time until they had to catch themselves on,” he said.

Almost 25 years after the death of his brothers, Mr Reavey found himself propelled into the public spotlight when the late DUP leader Ian Paisley used parliamentary privilege to allege he was involved in planning the Kingsmills attack.

“That was one of the worst blows I ever got,” he said.

“I used to meet the Kingsmills people. I would always be talking to them, sitting with them, shaking hands with them, my arm round them sympathising with them and the next thing this thing comes out and I’m sure they were saying ‘that’s some so-and-so talking to me’.

“Thanks be to God not everybody believed it.”

While Mr Paisley never retracted his statement, a subsequent investigation by the police’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) made clear there was no evidence to link any member of the Reavey family to paramilitarism.

For Mr O’Dowd the sense of loss has intensified, not diminished, with the passing of the years.

“It was such a waste, so futile,” he said.

“I think it is maybe worse 40 years on because you can reflect on what has been lost.

“My brothers were both young men – 24 and 19. I am now 62 and a grandfather.

“We lost so much as a family but they individually lost out on an opportunity to have a life – they had expectations like us, everybody wants to have some sort of a life, to have a family and see your family growing up. That’s my biggest sense – loss.

“And it was two families impacted. My uncle Joe was killed in front of two of his daughters Deirdre, who was 21, and Bernadette, who was just 19 – they witnessed his death.

“I never thought it (the Troubles) was worth losing one life, never mind 3,000.”

Mr O’Dowd believes that some form of resolution is required on outstanding legacy cases before Northern Ireland can truly move on.

“Ours is a terrible story, but it’s just one of many,” he said.

“There are lots of families who have suffered every bit as much as us, or more, and I just think what was it all about?

“We have now moved into a new era in Northern Ireland of proper politics, but there still seems to be a lot of residue from the past.

“I believe that all the victims’ families deserve the truth and ultimately justice to enable them to finally move on.”

Mr Reavey says he has lost all faith in political efforts to find ways to tackle the legacy of the Troubles.

The latest attempt to set up new investigatory mechanisms has floundered due to a row over the extent of official documentation the Government is willing to make public.

Mr Reavey is instead pinning his hopes on legal challenges being taken by relatives of Glenanne victims in the courts and efforts to have the killings probed in the coroner’s court.

He also hopes a stalled Police Ombudsman investigation into the Reavey murders will commence in the coming weeks.

“On a daily basis I ask myself why does the Government have an agenda not to resolve the issues around the Glenanne series of murders – what are they hiding?” he said.

“We (the families) aren’t hiding anything – all we want to do is tell the truth. Nowhere in Europe has there been such a series of murders and none of them resolved – not one of them.

“There’s something wrong there.”