Yvonne Dunlop murder: IRA hunger striker Thomas McElwee’s last words were to ask for forgiveness after Ballymena mother burned to death in firebomb attack

The last written words of hunger striker Thomas McElwee were to ask for forgiveness for his actions – and to say he wanted to leave violence behind and work for “peace and harmony” with the British, it has emerged.

Tuesday, 10th August 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Tuesday, 10th August 2021, 10:21 am
The memory of Thomas McElwee and Francis Hughs is kept alive at Sunday's parade in Drumkeen. (1008cg45)

Twenty-three-year-old Thomas McElwee from Tamlaghyduff, 13 miles west of Ballymena, died in the hunger strikes on August 8 in 1981.

On October 9, 1976 one of his fire bombs killed Yvonne Dunlop from Ballymena who died while working in her father’s boutique, Alley Katz.

She was checking a shopping bag left by two girls when the fire bomb went off. She only just had time to shout a warning to her nine-year-old son to escape before she was caught in the fireball and was burned to death.

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Her mother said later: “Yvonne knew I would soon be arriving to take over from her in the boutique. She had just gone to the back of the shop when she shouted: ‘There’s a bomb, get out’.

“Then suddenly the whole place burst into flames. Her son escaped with just his hair singed but my daughter didn’t have a chance.”

A list of targets was found in a coat in McElwee’s car. He pleaded guilty to owning the coat and the bomb and was jailed.

On Sunday Sinn Fein commemorated his death in a tweet with a video presentation: “40 years ago today, at 11am, Óglach Thomas McElwee from Bellaghy died after 62 days on hunger strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. He was a political prisoner; unbowed and unbroken. This is his story.”

Yvonne Dunlop, a young Ballymena mother, was killed when an IRA firebomb exploded in her father's clothese shop in Ballymena.

The video narration describes him as “a political prisoner determined to stand up for his comrades and the republican struggle”.

It added: “Tom was 23-years-old when he died ... He came from a close knit family in Bellaghy and was admired by all his comrades as someone who instilled confidence and belief in those around him.

“Tom was a typical young Co Derry man, kind and good natured, full of life and with a craze for cars and stock car racing and also filled with a love of his country and his way of life.”

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill added: “Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom McElwee after 62 days on hunger strike” and then in Irish – “He died for Irish freedom”.

Thomas McElwee, who died during the Maze hunger strikes.

The Sinn Fein tweet prompted almost 300 comments while Ms O’Neill’s prompted almost 60. They were almost unanimously scathing of the fact that the party had airbrushed Yvonne Dunlop – and her son who ran for his life while she burnt to death – out of the story.

Unusually, even Sinn Fein supporters were almost entirely silent.

Sinn Fein tweeted that he had died “a political prisoner; unbowed and unbroken” however on the same day, Sinn Fein’s youth wing – Ógra Shinn Féin – also tweeted an image of his last written words, which put a different light on the hunger striker’s thoughts.

From this note, Mr McElwee makes it clear he was asking forgiveness for what he had done and that he now wanted to work for peace.

He wrote: “My Last Wish; I ask for forgiveness from everyone. I would rather live than die but if I have to die I would like to let the people know that I bear no animosity, no ill feeling towards anybody.

“I would like to live among the people as a social worker and promote peace and harmony among Catholics and Protestants and also with the British.

“I feel very close to God now and very happy. I have no worries. I am still hopeful for a settlement. Tomas McElwee.”

But another former teenager IRA bomber, Shane Paul Doherty from Londonderry, said it was clear that Mr McElwee was “trying to express a desperate kind of repentance for his evil murder of an innocent Protestant woman”.

Mr Doherty said: “When I read the Gospels for the first time in Wormwood Scrubs prison and decided that the IRA’s campaign was utterly sinful and that I needed to repent my many sins, the IRA and the IRA prisoners turned on me and a number of IRA prisoners discussed murdering me in my cell. Three words were entirely unacceptable to the IRA – guilt, sin and repentance.

He added: “It’s clear that even under the pressure of the IRA hunger strike that McElwee was trying to express a desperate kind of repentance for his evil murder of an innocent Protestant woman, but he didn’t have the courage to come out and say that clearly to his comrades.”

When he first repented in prison and left the IRA and wrote letters of apology to his victims, Mr Doherty said only a minority of churchmen supported him.

“The move to sanitise the IRA’s campaign of murder has been under way for many years and there are many in the Catholic Church – and in some Protestant churches – who now regard the IRA’s campaign as basically morally defensible.”

While there was major criticism yesterday of Sinn Fein’s handling of Mr Elwee’s anniversary, the News Letter invited Sinn Fein to respond to all of it, including his last written words.

Sinn Fein’s only response was that it “regrets the deaths of everyone who died as a result of the conflict, including the tragic death of Yvonne Dunlop. The Good Friday Agreement allows everyone to remember their dead in a dignified and respectful manner”.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that the Sinn Fein film was “a heavily edited version of his story”.

She tweeted: “McElwee was sentenced to 20 years for possession of explosives and the murder of Yvonne Dunlop, a 26-year-old mum burnt alive when one of the firebombs destroyed her clothes shop. Her story matters: it must not be erased.”

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