Legacy Scandal: ‘An IRA bomb killed my son yet it was me who had to quit the victims forum while a boastful bomber stayed’

Jackie Nicholl at his home holding a picture of his son Colin. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Jackie Nicholl at his home holding a picture of his son Colin. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

In the latest essay in our series that raises fresh questions about the definition of a victim, JACKIE NICHOLL recounts how he liked and befriended a man on the victims forum until he found that he was an unrepentant IRA bomber. Mr Nicholl was left feeling dismayed and tricked (see beneath the essay a link to rest of the series):

On Saturday December 11 1971, when I was aged 31, my wife Ann had gone to be with her sister in Sunderland, whose son had been killed.

News Letter series for the late summer and autumn of 2018 on how after decades of murder and mayhem in which the IRA was most culpable, the legacy processes have turned against state forces to a grossly disproportionate extent

News Letter series for the late summer and autumn of 2018 on how after decades of murder and mayhem in which the IRA was most culpable, the legacy processes have turned against state forces to a grossly disproportionate extent

Robert, our nephew, had walked behind a bus the age of six on Thursday December 9.

When we got that terrible news we decided that Ann should go to be with her sister and her husband. She left on the following day, the Friday.

On the Saturday I had left our 17-month-old son Colin with my mother’s neighbour while I was playing football at Dunmurry.

She had taken Colin and her own child for a walk in the pram, and they ended up going down the Shankill Road. As they were passing the Balmoral Furnishing Showrooms a bomb went off. Four people were killed, two men and the two children. She was injured.

Colin Nicholl, who was born in 1970, and was killed by an IRA bomb in December 1971 at the age of 17 months. 'Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

Colin Nicholl, who was born in 1970, and was killed by an IRA bomb in December 1971 at the age of 17 months. 'Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

The bomb went off at 12.25pm.

After the match, we had heard of a bombing on the Shankill and passed where it had gone off, but I didn’t know Colin had been killed.

At about about 5.30pm I got to my mother’s house in Alloa Street in north Belfast. It was packed, with many of my family there: two of my sisters and one of my brothers. I said who is the party for?

But they were all in a bad way. My brother-in-law Tom said: “We have got bad news, Colin was killed.”

The body of Colin Nicholl, aged 17 months, is carried from the scene of the December 1971 Shankill Road bomb

The body of Colin Nicholl, aged 17 months, is carried from the scene of the December 1971 Shankill Road bomb

All I remember at the time was beating the floor with my fists.

I thought: what am I going to do with Ann, how am I going to get in touch with her? We had no phone, very few people had one then.

I flew to Glasgow that night, and the police were waiting for me. They were fantastic and got me on a goods train that was going to Newcastle.

The police were waiting on me in England also, in Sunderland. They brought to me to my sister-in-law’s home. It was about 2am and I had to break the news to Ann.

Robert McClenaghan, foreground, whose grandfather was killed in a loyalist bomb and who later became an IRA bomber. He is a member of the victims forum

Robert McClenaghan, foreground, whose grandfather was killed in a loyalist bomb and who later became an IRA bomber. He is a member of the victims forum

Ann blamed herself, said she should never have gone to Sunderland, but that is nonsense: of course she had to go to support her sister who had just lost her own son. The only people to blame are the IRA.

Ann has had to have trauma counselling ever since, 47 years ago this December. But neither of us have got over it, there is not a day when I don’t think about my son.

Colin was adopted at about two months, he was a lovely child.

I had been working at the shipyard, we hadn’t had kids. At first I hadn’t been keen on adoption but when I got Colin, it changed my whole outlook on life.

As soon as I held him in my arms I wanted to bring him home.

We later had two other sons, one who now lives in Canada and one who lives here.

Last year a friend who I played football with suggested I put my name forward for the Victims and Survivors Forum – he had heard about the forum, which I knew nothing about.

My name was put forward, they sent for me for interview, they asked me to tell them what had happened.

I then got word that I was on the forum. I thought that I would be able to bring a new perspective to it.

People had told me the forum had republicans on it, and I said, well I didn’t care the religion of anyone who was a victim. I was willing to listen.

The first meeting I went to there were four men facing me, and they wrote down everything I said. Robert McClenaghan, whose grandfather was murdered in the loyalist McGurk’s bar bomb, was one of them.

I assumed that people take notes. I thought nothing about it, I just thought if they are writing down my experience and not putting a twist on it, I am happy.

I attended forum meetings, which were at least once a month. I had made friends with McClenaghan. He was affable and friendly and one time I gave him a lift into Belfast.

I once pulled him up at a meeting. He was being critical of the Red Hand Commandos, the UVF, the UDA but nothing about the IRA or INLA or anybody like that, so I said: “Look, it was wrong only to mention Protestant paramilitaries, we should be critical of them all or say nothing.”

Other people said to me after at the tea break that I was right to say what I said.

I began to think that the forum was a talking shop. We never got minutes of the previous meeting. Politicians came to meetings and each time each person on the forum had to recount what had happened to them.

One day I got a phone call from an anonymous person who said they were sending me a disc. I still don’t know who the person was. They sent a disc that was about McClenaghan, telling the story about how he was in the IRA, how they bombed Belfast.

I was mad. I haven’t got any hair but I would have torn it out if I had.

I was shocked that the commissioner, Judith Thompson, would allow an individual who had carried out despicable acts, who was jailed for bombings, to sit on a forum for victims and survivors.

To think that my son, my beloved son, was killed by an IRA bomb and I had been tricked into sitting alongside an IRA bomber.

I went to the commissioner and said that I was resigning because I could not sit beside an individual who actually boasts that they carried out bombs, sometimes small, sometimes large, in Belfast city centre.

She said to me that she was unaware of his background until he became a member of the forum. I said what did you do when you heard? She said: there is nothing I could do.

She later wrote me a letter saying she was sorry I had left but I never got the sense she was sympathetic to me.

I assumed that once this was revealed in the News Letter there would be police investigations into the bombings McClenaghan boasted about. I also thought politicians would make a hue and cry about it. Only Jim Allister did.

Since our son’s murder we have been let down badly three times.

First, the RUC-PSNI never came to our door, not once, to speak about our son. My wife went to Antrim Road police station about three years after the murder but didn’t tell me.

She asked to speak to someone who was dealing with the bombing. A detective came, took notes and said I will be back in a few minutes. He returned and said: “Are you sure you’ve got the right date when your son was killed?”

That is what he said!

She immediately left. She didn’t tell me until years later.

Second, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). They were friendly but useless. So much so, that even in the report they said the four people killed were from west Belfast They were all from north. People might say that’s trivial but not to me. They got names wrong, they weren’t doing their job.

It was a full report and it was of no value, it said they couldn’t find anything. We had been expecting a report that said nothing and that is what we got.

The third time was what happened on the forum.

I was on it to try to do my best for everyone: regardless of colour, creed, religion or whatever. I wanted to help victims who had suffered like we had done. Instead I was sitting beside a boastful bomber.

I had sympathised with him about his grandfather being killed but lost all sympathy when I heard he had turned to bombing himself.

We never turned to violence. I became a trade unionist, working for everyone. I became chairman of the North Belfast branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

Now McClenaghan has stayed on the forum and I have gone and no-one except the News Letter and Jim Allister has shown any interest.

I feel betrayed.

For other essays in the legacy series, click here