Widow speaks out 40 years after IRA murder: I had to tell our daughter God took daddy to heaven because some people don’t like soldiers

The widow of a man slain by the IRA four decades ago has spoken out about the killing and its aftermath – and her belief that one day divine justice will be done.

By Adam Kula
Friday, 13th May 2022, 6:25 pm
Updated Friday, 13th May 2022, 6:30 pm
Tom Cunningham
Tom Cunningham

Mary Robinson made the comments after the government unveiled fresh amnesty-style plans for Troubles perpetrators this week.

A practicing Catholic, Mary also spoke of her distaste for Sinn Fein, following its emergence as the largest party in the Province in last week’s election.

Her husband Tom Cunningham (23) was killed on May 12, 1982, and this Sunday she will attend a small commemorative service for him in Leckpatrick Church of Ireland near Strabane (Tom’s background had been Anglican).

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To mark the anniversary, she has spoken to the News Letter about the crime and its aftermath.

‘I KNEW IN MY HEART IT WAS HIM’:

At the time of the murder, she and Tom had lived in Ballymagorry, a mixed village just north of Strabane (where she continues to reside).

He had joined the UDR because he was out of work and needed money but was completely apolitical, she said.

Tom did not like the 48 hour shifts, and retired from the regiment in summer 1981, working instead as a contractor to the Housing Executive.

On the day of his death, he was labouring away on a house in Strabane when at about 2.40pm two gunmen approached.

He was shot four times and taken to Altnagelvin.

That afternoon, Mary happened to be working as a nurse at the hospital.

Her emergency team got word a gun casualty was being brought in from Strabane.

“And just in that moment, I don’t know why, I was sure it was him,” she said.

“In my heart I was sure it was Tom.”

She burst into tears, and soon one of her colleagues confirmed her intuition – it was Tom, and he was dead.

She later saw him in the mortuary, with a plaster over a wound on his head. It looked like he was just sleeping.

That morning, shortly before going to work, he had joked about her Irish stew being overcooked.

It was the last exchange they ever had.

DAUGHTER WITHOUT A DAD:

Mary gave birth to their daughter, Claire, in October that year.

“She used to ask me when she was very young: Where’s my daddy?” said Mary.

She would reply: “Your daddy got hurt very badly and God took him to heaven to be with Him... Daddy was a soldier, and some people don’t like soldiers. They shot him and he was too badly hurt to stay here.”

Claire “just bounced on as if nothing had happened” when she heard this – but Mary thinks the news affected her at a much deeper level.

‘EARNED IMMUNITY’:

One of the gunmen went on to be caught and jailed, but not the other.

Now aged 64 (and remarried since 1990), Mary was asked about the government plans for “earned immunity” which were unveiled this week – basically, that if someone comes forward to admit a crime truthfully, they will not face prosecution.

“I don’t give it a lot of the thought. I just find it too painful,” she said.

“I just have to keep it in my head that whoever did it will meet their maker some day.

“I don’t think it’s right people can get off scot-free.”

What if the second gunman who shot Tom came forward, gave information, and got “earned immunity”?

“I just don’t think that’s right,” she said. “Somebody does something like that and gets rewarded for it in a way, and don’t have to do time.”

As to Sinn Fein now being NI’s biggest party, she said: “I can’t bear to think of them in office. I can’t bear to think of them having the authority to decide what’s right for any of us. I’ve just no time for them at all. None whatsoever.

“I don’t think they’ve moved any way from their original plan. I’m a Catholic myself, and I’d have absolutely no time for any of this.”

As she prepares for the wreath-laying church service this Sunday, she reflected: “40 just seems such a huge milestone. I can’t believe it’s 40 years.

“Because I can remember every minute of that day.”

She takes some solace in her belief that “yes, some day, somebody will answer to the man above for this”.

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