News Letter reporter Stephen Gamble explores how a victims’ group is aiming to show what life was like for Protestants in Fermanagh borderlands during Troubles
The tour bus passed by isolated farmhouses, tranquil lakes, and rolling green hills on a cool summer evening.
But those on board were not there to admire the scenery.
They had come to learn about and honour the memory of those men and women who were brutally murdered by IRA terrorists during their campaign of violence in the borderlands of Co Fermanagh.
At each and every stop, the tour guide – local farmer and former UDR man Howard Brooker – tells the story of another life lost in what he described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Protestants in the border county during the darkest days of the Troubles.
Stories like off-duty UDR man Tommy Bullock and his wife Emily, who were savagely shot dead in their own home in Derrylin back in 1972.
Or the three police officers killed in an IRA land mine attack near Belcoo RUC base in 1976.
Dozens of stories like these will be heard as part a new border trails project, established by victims’ group the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF).
The trails allow people to pay tribute to the memory and walk respectfully in the footsteps of some of those who were murdered.
“Fermanagh was not like other parts of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It had its own distinct narrative,” said Kenny Donaldson, director of services at SEFF.
“Unlike in Belfast or other parts of the country, there was no conflict here.
“It was a land grab, as the IRA sought to remove the minority Protestant unionist population from the border areas.
“About 92-93% of Troubles-related deaths in Fermanagh were carried out by the Provisional IRA. There was practically zero support for loyalist terrorism here.
“It is important to remember that at no time did the Protestant community here take the law into their own hands to retaliate against the IRA.”
The purpose of the border trails is to inform people of the harrowing acts of violence committed against the people of Fermanagh by the IRA, and, equally importantly, to respectfully honour and remember those who perished.
Having enjoyed great success with its South Fermanagh trail, which has catered for around 4,000 people in the decade since its inception, SEFF decided the time was right to introduce three new trails, covering the length and breadth of the picturesque borderland county.
On Thursday evening, former UDR man Howard Brooker led a group out on the inaugural West Fermanagh trail.
Having served in the county during the darkest years of the conflict, Howard has a detailed knowledge of the IRA campaign and holds an extensive collection of military memorabilia from the Trouble era.
One of the stops on the tour is in the small village of Garrison, near the Fermanagh-Leitrim border, where part-time UDR soldier Johnny Fletcher was murdered by the IRA in 1972.
The 43-year-old was abducted as he was driving away from his farmhouse to work. He was frog-marched into a field by PIRA terrorists and executed. His brutal killing was witnessed by his wife Edith. Johnny was off duty at the time of his death.
His murder and the heightened threat on security force members living on the West Fermanagh border brought about the forced displacement/relocation of several families overnight.
Howard said: “It was a systematic form of ethnic cleansing by the IRA.
“Yet along the tour route, we will come across memorials to dead IRA men.
“Those are hard for me to look at, particularly as the IRA has never expressed any remorse for the lives they took.”
On another of the new trails, which debuted earlier this month in North Fermanagh, one stop is particularly poignant for guide Ken Funston.
Ken’s brother Ronnie was killed by the IRA at his farm on the Fermanagh-Donegal border 33 years ago.
Recounting his brother’s murder to the 50 passengers on the bus, Ken, advocacy manager with SEFF, said: “Ronnie had just had his breakfast and was feeding his cattle with the tractor when the IRA moved in and shot him in the back.
“My mother heard the shooting and when she arrived on the scene, she saw the gunmen running off and cheering after completing their terrible deed.”
After the killing, Ken’s family sold the farm and moved.
“It was an example of a land grab, to clear my family out of the area,” he added.
“Of the 116 deaths in Co Fermanagh related to the Troubles, over 100 were perpetrated by the IRA, and more than 90% of them remain unsolved to this day.”
Further along the trail, Ken also discusses the planned sectarian massacre of children at Tullyhommon in 1987.
A bomb was to be detonated on the same morning as the Enniskillen Poppy Day Bomb, with the target being children attending the Remembrance Service who belonged to groups such as the Boy Brigade and Girl Guides.
“Thankfully the command wire for the bomb had been cut, but had it detonated, up to 50-60 children could have been murdered that day, removing an entire generation from the Tullyhommon-Pettigo border area,” said Ken.
On Tuesday, the inaugural Enniskillen and District trail is set to take place, led by from Brian Johnston.
Originally from North Yorkshire but now living in his adopted home of Fermanagh, Brian was a warrant officer in the British Army.
He served for many years across various regiments, including the UDR.
Brian was present on the morning of the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing and assisted in the aftermath of the blast, so he is well placed to convey the events of that terrible day in 1987.
The IRA bomb, which exploded next to the town’s war memorial, claimed the lives of 11 people and injured 63. It was one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.
With almost a decade of facilitating border trails under his belt, SEFF chairman, Eric Brown is hoping the three new projects will prove as successful as the one that started it all.
“I have been running the South Fermanagh trail since it started up around 2008 and it has grown in ways I couldn’t have imagined,” he added.
“We never actually set out to create a border trail. It really all began with journalists wanting to see these locations and learn more about what had happened, and when we realised there was an interest from a wide range of people it just continued to develop.”
About 90-100 coach groups have experienced the trial at this point, including peace groups, US students, academics, clergy, media, community organisations, victims’ groups, Loyal Order connected groups and many others.
Eric added: “We do not glorify anything on these trails; we tell it like it is, warts and all. It is important that history is not rewritten.
“The best way to describe it is that we want to convey what it was like for Protestants to live in these areas back then.
“I am often asked if people lived in fear during the Troubles. I would say they didn’t live in fear, but they were certainly fearful of what could happen.”
SEFF will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and from humble beginnings now supports in excess of 1,000 individuals and their families who come from across Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and further afield.
Eric adds: “People’s greatest urge when we started SEFF was that they wanted recognition that they were innocent victims of terrorism. These were a God-fearing people and they chose a monument in the shape of a Bible which was placed in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church of Ireland, Lisnaskea, with the names of those murdered on it. Over 250 people turned up for a low-key dedication.”
Anyone interested in attending one or more of these trails is asked to contact the SEFF office on 028677 23884 or visit www.seff.org.uk
Each trail takes about two-and-a-half hours.
The trails will only run if there is significant interest shown.
A one hour long DVD encapsulating footage from the four trials along with a narrative introduction has been prepared in recent months and will be made available to those interested in engaging with the project.
Meanwhile, a woman whose mother was murdered in the Enniskillen bomb has said the IRA’s “evil nature” is laid bare on the Fermanagh border trails.
Aileen Quinton’s 72-year-old mother Alberta was killed along with 10 other people when the IRA detonated a bomb during the town’s Poppy Day parade in 1987.
Earlier this month, she boarded a coach with 50 other people to visit locations around the border county of Fermanagh, where the IRA murdered so many innocent civilians and members of the security forces.
She told the News Letter: “This is the first time I had been on one of these border trails and I found it deeply interesting.
“What particularly struck me was visiting Tullyhommon. I had never been there before and I feel what happened in that place has largely been forgotten.”
On the same day as the Enniskillen bomb, the IRA planted a separate device in the small village of Tullyhommon, 20 miles away. The bomb was four times the size of the one in Enniskillen, but it failed to explode.
Had the device exploded, it could have killed scores of innocent children who had been taking part in a Remembrance Sunday parade in the village that morning.
“To me, Tullyhommon really sums up the evilness of the IRA,” Aileen said. “I have always believed that Tullyhommon was the real target for the IRA that day, and Enniskillen was meant as a distraction. Even though the bomb in Tullyhommon did not go off, the evil intention was still there.”
Describing the border trail as a “fascinating experience”, Aileen said: “I learned a lot of new information and I would certainly encourage people to take part.”