What a Forgotten Assassination Can Tell Us About The Future of Northern Ireland

A new book about the Troubles centres on the murder of a police officer by an unlikely paramilitary.
November 5, 2020, 2:50pm
A British soldier and an armed Royal Ulster Constabulary officer in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1980s
A British soldier and an armed Royal Ulster Constabulary officer in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Photo: Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo

On a Saturday morning in April 1978, Millar McAllister, a 36-year-old photographer for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police force, opened the door to his back garden in Lisburn, eight miles southwest of Belfast’s city centre.

In those days, this overwhelmingly Protestant town was something of a stronghold for the RUC, a legacy, in some respects, of an exodus of the town’s Catholic population in the 1920s following violence during the Irish War of Independence. And so when he saw someone moving in his back garden, McAllister, despite the perils of his day job, the deadly violence taking place almost daily across Northern Ireland and the fact that his two small sons were at home with him, may not have feared for his life.

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Minutes later he was dead, shot at close range by Harry Murray, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer who, like McAllister, had grown up in a working class Protestant family, had lost his father at a young age and was now a father of young children himself. As Murray fired his final shot McAllister’s seven-year old son Alan appeared behind him. He screamed once: “Daddy!” Then he screamed again: “Mummy!” Murray turned and ran.

Between 1966 and the late 1990s, about 3,600 people died during the Troubles, the conflict between the British state, Loyalist paramilitaries and Republican armed groups, most notably the IRA. Millar McAllister was the 2,017th victim of this irregular war, and it is the almost forgotten story of his assassination that forms the basis for Ian Cobain’s new book Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island.

Through the story of McAllister’s killing, Cobain produces a concise and gripping history of the Troubles, revealing the people behind the pain and violence. Despite the volume of books that exist on the subject, it’s a story that needs to be told, particularly outside of Northern Ireland, where a great ignorance about the conflict still exists.

Cobain, an award-winning journalist who now works for Middle East Eye, has written two previous books: Cruel Britannia, a history of the UK’s often highly secretive involvement with torture; and The History Thieves, which revealed the full extent of the British Empire’s attempts to destroy evidence of the crimes it committed in its colonies. While, as he tells me, the first two books were about why the British aren’t quite who they think they are – about the yawning gap between the official history and the murky reality – Anatomy of a Killing is “about how our enemies were not quite who we thought they were”.

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It was McAllister’s love of animals that would inadvertently lead to his death. Pigeon racing was his great hobby, and from 1970 he wrote a monthly column for the Pigeon Racing News and Gazette under the byline “The Copper”, which was accompanied by his picture. An IRA suspect being held at the infamous Castlereagh interrogation centre recognised McAllister from this byline photo, word got out and his home address was located. When he found himself face-to-face with McAllister, Harry Murray told him he was there because of their shared love of pigeons, establishing a level of trust before shooting him dead.

It turned out that Murray’s operation had been compromised, and he would go on to be sentenced to life behind bars. He was in the Maze prison when Bobby Sands, who had just been elected to the UK Parliament, died after a 66-day hunger strike. While his children were between the ages of three and seven when Murray went inside, they were in their late teens and early twenties when he got out.

Cobain tells me that he “wanted particularly to look at people who chose to turn to political violence during the period, and who almost certainly would not have turned to violence in any other context.”

The murder of McAllister was “particularly intriguing, as the IRA gunman was from a Protestant background”. In fact, Murray had even expressed his allegiance to Queen and country in a series of tattoos, and as a teenager in the late 1960s had fought for the RAF in what is now Yemen. This involvement in one of Britain’s late and messy conflicts of Empire echoes the way in which, as Cobain tells me, some of the army and intelligence officers who had served in overseas colonies, “attempted to apply the lessons they had learnt during the retreat from Empire”, and that “as recently as the mid-1970s, soldiers from the Parachute Regiment, while undergoing riot training, were taught to shoot ringleaders.”

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Murray was booted out of the air force for refusing to take an order and then hounded out of North Belfast by Loyalists after he married a Catholic woman. This wounded him deeply and led, eventually, to him joining the IRA. Known as the Crab because he was hard on the outside but soft on the inside, Murray has never apologised for killing McAllister. When a police officer told him the photographer’s widow had forgiven him for the murder, Murray replied that he didn’t care. “I’m not sorry about shooting the policeman but I didn’t like the wee lad seeing it,” he told police at the time. “There’s a war on. You don’t think it’s a war but we do and I do what I’m told.”

Cobain cites a 1986 study produced by two Northern Irish psychiatrists, Alex Lyons and Helen Harbinson, which found that rather than being the abnormal psychopaths who populated the pages of the British press of the day, the IRA’s “political killers tended to be normal in intelligence and mental stability”.

So often, it was what the two psychiatrists found to be a “total alienation” from the British state that led people to join the Republican movement. At one point, a BBC journalist visiting Long Kesh prison was shocked to find a prisoner on one of the IRA wings reading Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy. Asked why he’s reading these books, the prisoner replied: “Because an IRA man’s normal, like everyone else.” When the reporter told him normal people don’t go around killing other people, the prisoner replied that “normal people, elsewhere, did not live in Northern Ireland.”

The torture sometimes meted out to IRA suspects at places like Castlereagh didn’t help either. Féilim Ó hAdhmaill, then a 20-year old student named Phelim Hammill, was arrested and taken to the interrogation centre to be questioned about McAllister’s murder by police detectives. He later recalled what happened to him there, giving a description of the torture technique that would come to be known as waterboarding when used by the CIA in the years following 9/11.

The author warns against complacency when it comes to the province: “Look at all those politicians from the south east of England who backed Brexit without apparently giving sufficient thought to the Irish border. Theresa Villiers supported Brexit despite being Northern Ireland Secretary at the time of the vote. Was she thinking about Ireland, north and south? I felt like shouting at her: ‘Behind you’!" 

Looking at Northern Ireland today, Cobain tells me he’s “confident that we’re not heading back to the bad old days. Over the last couple of decades, the two traditions have shown at times an ability to cooperate with each other, while never fully trusting each other. That's impressive, and an enormous improvement. But the conflict strikes me as being frozen, rather than resolved.”

@oscarrickettnow