Twenty-five years ago today, two policemen were shot dead at point blank range in central Belfast.
Constables Harry Beckett and Gary Meyer were walking from Castlecourt to Queen Street when two gunmen ran up behind them and tried to put bullets in the back of their heads. One of the victims struggled before he was killed.
Mr Beckett, from Bangor, was 47, and married with one child. Mr Meyer, from Glengormley, was aged 35, and married with two children.
The murders, in the late morning of Saturday June 30 1990, were met with widespread revulsion.
The city centre then was vibrant, and closer in atmosphere to the normality of today than the chaos and terror of the early 1970s, when the Troubles were at their height.
The two men were community beat officers, performing a role which would not have been possible 15 years earlier.
A witness at a later inquest gave a terrifying description of a short man with dark eyes holding on to the shoulder of the constable while putting a gun to the back of his head
Anyone alive today who has a memory of the Troubles will be able to pinpoint killings that for whatever reason resonated with them. These killings had that impact on me.
They were no worse than any of the other heinous murders of the conflict, and less dramatic than some.
But some deeply chilling aspects of the Beckett and Meyer deaths hit home with me, then aged 18, and on the day after my schooling ended.
First, there was the unspeakable method of running up behind the target, so that he has no warning.
By 1990, annual Troubles deaths averaged less than 100, in the phase of the conflict that came to be considered an ‘acceptable level of violence’.
Average road deaths in Northern Ireland in any one year by that time were typically much higher.
No-one walking down a street would be anticipating sudden death from behind, not even a uniformed RUC officer on patrol in 1990.
What, I have since wondered, might the officers have been thinking about as they walked in a city at 11.47am, when the gunmen struck?
Nothing and everything might be the answer: What you are going to eat for lunch perhaps; a tune; a coming day off; the car repair or some other chore that you have to do. Or maybe the weather.
And then bam.
This appalling style of ‘execution’ would later be repeated when two RUC men were shot in the back of the head on Lurgan in June 1997.
In fact in the 1990 murders, Harry Beckett must have become aware of the impending attack because he struggled with the taller of the two gunman. Then, after Gary Meyer had been shot, the two gunmen wrestled Mr Beckett to his knees and shot him.
A second memorable feature of the 1990 attack was the time and place: bustling Belfast on a Saturday at that optimistic time of late June, with a whole summer ahead. Anyone of my generation will have another incongruously happy memory from childhood of the wonderful toy shop Leisureworld, opposite the scene of the shooting.
After the killing, I remember a friend who worked in a city centre record shop telling me of everyone’s anger and horror. I also recall a friend of my brother’s from west Belfast expressing his disgust at our home in Bangor over dinner that evening.
The killings were on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph that afternoon.
The news had that grim quality that we have seen in Tunisia, when someone who was alive and well hours previously becomes a headshot photograph. I don’t remember when the photos of Mr Beckett and Mr Meyer were first shown, perhaps that night on TV and they were certainly in the Monday papers, but I do recall the images, above.
It was all the more haunting for being, as headshots often were then, in black and white, like a wraith.
Finally, the killings stood out for a grisly detail that soon emerged. You wonder about anyone who has the capacity to run up behind a victim, and sure enough the News Letter reported on July 4 that police were hunting a “psychopathic IRA killer who specialises in close-up murders”.
A witness at a later inquest gave a terrifying description of “a short man with dark eyes ... holding on to the shoulder of the constable while putting a gun to the back of his head”.
Who was that demonic-sounding man? Is he still alive? What was his story? Did he ever feel remorse?
Who was the other killer? Was he haunted by his action?
The BBC recently reported that the guns used in the murders had been brought in for ballistics firing and then returned to an IRA arms dump in full working order. I hope Mr Beckett’s distressed daughter Kathryn, who was interviewed, gets more information on exactly what happened.
I also hope we in the media keep the focus on the swines who carried out the killings.
As Bishop Cahal Daly said, the two RUC men were known and liked in the Castle Street area, and their murders were a “depraved and wicked deed”.