Sunday Business Post

'Her body simply disintegrated in our arms...'

By Vincent Browne

Vincent Browne was among those people who helped the dying and maimed in the Dublin bombings. Earlier he had met UVF leaders, some of whom were likely to have been responsible for the outrage.

Four months before the Dublin bombings in May 1974, I met the leaders of the UVF, the organisation that was responsible for those bombings.

Almost certainly some of those directly involved in the bombings were present. The circumstances of that meeting were as follows: in January, 1974, I was asked by the second in command of the IRA at the time, Daithi O'Connell, to go to Belfast to meet the UVF leadership to set up a meeting between them and the IRA.

I had known O'Connell for some years and met him often at that time, although meetings were difficult as he was on the run. At those meetings, I regularly raised with him the killings by the IRA of off-duty members of the RUC and UDR.

It seemed to me those killings were particularly gruesome and horrific. When O'Connell asked me to meet the UVF, he said the purpose of the contact was to arrange for the ending of the sectarian assassination of Catholics in the North and the ending of the killings of off-duty RUC and UDR members.

I do not remember why it was necessary for me to set up a meeting, nor do I remember how my meeting with the UVF was set up.

I met the UVF leadership in a room above a pool hall off the Shankill Road on a Saturday afternoon. My recollection is that arrangements for the meeting with the IRA were quickly agreed and I then conducted an interview with them,which was published the following Monday or Tuesday in the Evening Herald, which I had recently joined.

There was a petrol shortage in the North at the time, either because of an industrial strike or loyalist action. I suspect loyalist action, for one of the UVF leaders at the meeting, Jim Hanna, gave me a note to show to a petrol retailer in Lisburn, which secured me supply.

Hanna was a tall, redheaded, outgoing fellow and is the only one of the UVF leadership I recall. I also liked him and I think we had some informal discussion after the meeting and the interview.

The meeting between the IRA and the UVF took place in Co Cavan a week or so later in a holiday home of a friend.

I met the two IRA representatives in a hotel in Virginia before the meeting and brought them to the venue.

The UVF representatives were accompanied by another journalist, who was then well known to me and who now works for a Dublin newspaper.

The IRA duo were O'Connell and Brian Keenan, who is still senior in the republican movement in Belfast and actively involved in the Peace Process.

Two people attended from the UVF. I had met both at the Belfast meeting. One was Hanna. I have forgotten the name of the second person, but I think this person was the more senior. The journalist who accompanied these UVF members would certainly know who this other person was, for he had intimate knowledge of the UVF.

Neither the other journalist nor I was present during the IRA-U VF meeting.We went to a local hotel, to be joined very much later by the four men, who obviously had got on well personally and were happy to socialise together for some hours into that night.

I was aware that Hanna and perhaps the second UVF person accompanying him to the Cavan meeting or some other member of that organisation came to Dublin subsequently for another meeting with the IRA and, again, the meeting was productive, or at least that was what I was led to believe, I assume, by O'Connell.

I have not had an opportunity, at the time of writing this column, to look back at the extensive interview published in the Evening Herald that January.

Perhaps when I do my memory will be refreshed and I will be able to recall some further information about the UVF and their disposition at the time.

The other journalist would be in a better position to recall that, for he had known the UVF leadership for some time. But I have no recollection of anyone expressing hostile intent towards the South.

The outcome of the meeting was some abatement in the killing of off-duty members of the security forces and of innocent Catholics.

No off duty member of the security forces was killed by the IRA from the murder of Cormac McCabe in a field near Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, on January 20, 1974, until the murders of Frederick Robinson on March 19 and Donald Farrell on March 23, and there were no further such killings until April 10, when George Sanderson was murdered.

There was also a let up in the sectarian killings of Catholics until May,when that campaign was resumed by the UVF with a vengeance.

During that time, however, some awful atrocities were perpetrated by the IRA. The worst of these was the murder of 12 people, nine of them British soldiers, on a coach travelling on the M62 motorway in Yorkshire. During that time also, the UVF killed two Catholics in a bomb attack on Conway's pub on the Shore Road in Belfast.

Among the killings during that period from late January 1974 to early May 1974 was that of Jim Hanna on April 1 by his own comrades in the UVF.

According to the book, Lost Lives, the superb chronicle of all the killings of the Northern conflict, there were conflicting reports of the reasons for his murder. Some claimed he was killed because he was a police informer, others that he was killed in an internal UVF feud. Another report that I recall is that he was killed for personal reasons.

Robert Fisk in his book, Point of No Return, claims Hanna was killed because of a meeting with the Official IRA in Monaghan. I assume this is a mistake and that it may have been because of his meeting with the Provisional IRA in Cavan and later Dublin.

This would be surprising for at that meeting in Belfast in early January,1974, I met what I was told was the entire UVF leadership (there were at least eight present, as far as I recall) and all were anxious for a meeting with the Provisional IRA.

But certainly something happened within the UVF during those months, from the period in January, when they wanted to explore, with the IRA, the idea of lessening the killings, to May when they intensified their campaign against innocent Catholics and then engaged in the horrific bombing of Dublin and Monaghan on May 17,1974. My theory is that they felt they were being outflanked by the UDA and by Ian Paisley, who were determined to bring down the power-sharing executive, involving the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, which had come into power that January.

When the Loyalist Workers Strike began in early May, 1974, the UVF had no option but to take sides, although the planning of the Dublin bombing may have preceded early May.

I had a bit part in the aftermath of those bombings in Dublin. I was in the offices of Independent Newspapers on Middle Abbey Street when I heard the first bomb go off. I was on my way downstairs to meet my brother, Malachy,who then was a final year medical student at Trinity.

By the time I met Malachy at the door of Independent Newspapers another bomb had gone off, this time nearer to us. We walked out to O'Connell Street and saw people running into that street from Talbot Street.

We began walking down Talbot Street, observing damage done to buildings by the explosion, a scene familiar to me from the years I had spent as a reporter in the North.

As we approached the junction with Gardiner Street, and almost in slow motion, we focused on the real horror.There were bodies and bits of bodies amid the rubble and, in the silence, sounds of quiet moaning.

There was a fine strapping man, I would have thought in his late 20s or early 30s, lying outside O'Neill's shoe shop. He had a big piece of metal from a car stuck into his right side. We lifted him up, awkwardly, and, with the assistance of another man, brought him to Moran's Hotel.

Someone there would not let us leave him in the foyer. They insisted we take him downstairs. We let the injured man fall on the steps as we meekly obeyed. The steps were covered with black speckled linoleum and an inch or two on the lip of the steps had a black and white square design.

We went back out and lifted a woman, also outside O'Neill's. She was still alive and was moaning. As we lifted her, her body simply disintegrated in our arms. We placed her down again.

There was a young woman, not badly injured but suffering from shock. Malachy thought she was in danger of dying unless she was got to a hospital quickly. No ambulances had arrived nor were any to arrive for what seemed like an age, certainly 40 minutes. A man was getting into a car further up Talbot Street near the junction with Marlborough Street. I ran up to him and asked would he take the young woman to the Mater Hospital. He hesitated, then agreed.

Malachy, the stranger we had met and I brought the woman down towards Marlborough Street, away from where ambulances were expected to arrive. The man with the car had gone. We brought others into Moran's Hotel, again down thestairs. The room downstairs was now in bedlam, people screaming, crying, moaning, others attending to them.

Back out on the street a senior garda officer wanted helpers to line up the dead bodies. Malachy impatiently told him to forget about the dead. He, the garda, was in deep shock. It may have been him, but certainly some garda shouted another bomb was about to go off.We raced back down Talbot Street and crouched beside walls for a few minutes. When nothing happened we went back.

Then an ambulance arrived.There were no stretchers in that first ambulance, just the iron frames on which to put stretchers, which meant only one person could be placed in the ambulance and then on the floor between the two iron frames. Other ambulances arrived.

After some time we went back to Independent Newspapers and I wrote an account of what I had seen for the following day's Irish Independent. Again, I have not had an opportunity to read that before writing this column, so my recollection may have been distorted by the passage of almost 30 years. I had the carbon copy of that article for years afterwards, but now can't find it.

Malachy and I then went out to Daly's pub on the quays. There were only a few people in the pub. I recall us simply staring ahead towards the glasses on the mirror-backed shelves. And for the first time the emotion of it all was overwhelming. I was crying and I think so too was Malachy. We drove to my home, then in Churchtown, past the old blood bank, which was then at the top of Lower Leeson Street. There was a queue of people lined up to give blood.

We watched Liam Cosgrave on television that night speak with sadness, firmness and dignity. I remember feeling proud of him and a confidence that his commitment to bring the perpetrators to justice would be realised.

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