DUP brother of UDA sectarian murder victim Gavin Brett breaks 20 year silence
Exactly 20 years since a Newtownabbey teenager was gunned down in a blatantly sectarian shooting, his brother has broken his silence over the killing and its aftermath.
Gavin Brett, 18, was shot dead not far from his home on July 29, 2001 (whilst friend Michael Farrell was left wounded).
Here the News Letter tells his family’s story, as part of an occasional feature shining a spotlight on some of the Troubles’ lesser-known victims.
Whilst Gavin’s mother Phyllis has sometimes spoken publicly about the murder, sibling Phillip – who was aged nine at the time and is today a rising star in the DUP – never has.
Gavin had been simply standing on the street with friends at the Hightown housing estate where he lived, when an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) gang drove by.
The entrance to a local GAA club happened to be nearby, and it is widely understood that the gang had just been scouting the area for any random Catholic to kill.
But as Phillip told the News Letter, the reality was more complicated than that.
“We come from a mixed background,” he said.
“Mum was Protestant and dad was Catholic. We lived in a majority nationalist community; probably, about 80/20.
“But we were given the freedom to choose what cultural activities we wanted to engage in.
“So we were probably the few ones who went to both the Twelfth of July and St Patrick’s Day celebrations.”
Though he would have described himself as Protestant, most of Gavin’s friends were nationalists, said his brother.
Some time after 11pm that night, a nurse from the estate rang their house with news of a shooting involving Gavin.
Phyllis’ husband Michael took the phone, but seemed to have the impression someone had “been messing, got a gun from somewhere and done something stupid”.
“I’d better go round and see what’s happening’,” he said.
After a while, Phyllis herself headed round to the scene too.
Along the way, people she met on the street offered condolences.
The word was already out: Gavin was dead.
– THE NEWS SINKS IN –
What followed was a blur of reporters, police and politicians, as the family home buzzed with phone calls and visitors for days.
The well-wishers included musical director Andrew Lloyd-Webber (who had been on holiday in Ireland at the time) and the anti-Apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who arrived in their estate in a “limousine that went on forever”.
As for what kind of a son and brother the family had lost, Gavin was described by his mother as having been “always jovial” and “a bit of a messer” – but also “studious and serious” at schoolwork.
He got good marks in his GNVQs, but they only arrived after he died.
“He talked about different things – about being a pilot, getting into tech,” she said.
“He’d a few irons in the fire.
“I think he did want to go to university – but that discussion never really happened.”
His father Michael was a seasoned paramedic, and had tried in vain to save Gavin’s life through CPR.
At the funeral, which was a vast affair, perhaps 20 ambulances and their crews attended to show solidarity with Michael and the rest of the family.
After a service in Carnmoney Anglican church (assisted by a Catholic priest) Gavin was buried in Carnmoney cemetery.
“He was buried with my mum and dad,” said Phyllis.
“Silly though it might seem to other people, I didn’t want him buried on his own.”
Money raised in the wake of the murder went to support a relative who was a nun working in Nigeria, where a physio centre was named after Gavin, while the rest went to aid premature babies (since Gavin had been born early himself).
– ‘THE ONE LIFE HE WANTED TO SAVE THE MOST’ –
Dad Michael died in 2007 from liver cancer.
“He never really recovered from it, it ultimately caused his death,” said Phyllis.
“My husband wasn’t a big drinker, but he drank a lot more afterwards.
“I think his biggest problem was the people he worked with – they didn’t really know how to deal with him ...
“One of the bosses said ‘he changed to another person’.”
Phillip said: “He’d been on the scene in Omagh [after the bomb].
“He’d been on the scene of the Shankill Bomb as well.
“He was so well known throughout NI because he was near 6ft 6in tall, and he’d done 30 years in the ambulance service.
“He had been to nearly every tragedy that happened in Northern Ireland...
“I think dad’s difficulty was he’d probably saved the lives of so many people through the years.
“That would be the one he wanted to save the most, and he wasn’t able.”
– UDA HELD RESPONSIBLE –
No-one was ever convicted of the murder, although local UDA hardman John ‘Grugg’ Gregg is widely believed to have sanctioned the attack.
He was killed himself two years later amid loyalist feuding.
The family also believe that the actual gunman (whose name Phyllis was not sure of) had died of a drugs overdose in Newtownabbey.
Asked about current plans for an amnesty for Troubles perpetrators, Phillip said: “We still think there’s some chance that, at some stage, someone will still be held responsible for this ...
“I don’t think we’ll ever give up on it.
“To say victims should just step aside is not something we could ever support.
“We saw first hand the impact it had on dad and others.
“It doesn’t just destroy the lives of the people they killed, but those that are left behind.”
Today Phillip Brett is the DUP group leader on Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council – an important role, since the party is by far the largest bloc on the council.
Before that he spent nine years as an aide to DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
Explaining why he had never talked publicly about the murder before, he said: “I didn’t want people thinking my political career was defined by this.”
He was asked why he gravitated to the DUP, given the misery loyalists had meted out to his family.
“After Gavin was murdered it did show me the impact politicians can have in trying to change things for the better,” he said, citing specifically Paul Girvan (a current DUP MP who formerly sat on the council) and Noreen McClelland, a current SDLP councillor.
“They were great to my mum and dad. I suppose it sparked my interest in politics.”
It was put to him that, during his work as a councillor, he must encounter people who are UDA members (or at least sympathizers).
“Trying to encourage those who were previously involved in violence on to a much more positive footing is something I 100% support,” he said.
“Anything I can do to make sure no-one gets caught up in violence, or can avoid any other family going through what we went through, that’s something I’m very, very keen to do.
“Anyone that wants to work to move NI forward and get on a more positive footing, I’m very happy to work with them
“Just because someone has a past, doesn’t mean they can’t have a future.”
– CAN THERE BE FORGIVENESS? –
Both Phillip and Phyllis were asked if they could forgive whoever was responsible.
Phyllis said: “Probably, yeah” – so long as they showed “sincerity on their part that they were sorry”.
She added: “I don’t think carrying bitterness and guilt is good. It eats away at you.
“We’ve all made mistakes – ok, that’s a very big mistake [shooting someone].
“Maybe forgive isn’t the right word. I could reconcile myself with them...
“I don’t hate them. I never did. I’d hope I’d be able to come to terms with them.”
And Philip said: “I’d be of a similar view to my mum. If we’d asked dad and he was still alive, I don’t think he’d say he’d have ever forgiven them.
“We saw the damage that did to him.
He said “Gavin would’ve wanted us to rise above” pure hatred, adding that “we probably feel sorry for them, pity them”.
~ More from this reporter: ~
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.