Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles
On the morning of Saturday 22 April, 1978, an off duty RUC officer, Millar McAllister, noticed a stranger in his back garden of his bungalow in Lisburn, eight miles from the centre of Belfast. When challenged, the man said he had come on behalf of his father to inquire about photos of pigeons. McAllister, a noted pigeon fancier, was looking after his two young sons, aged seven and 11, while his wife Nita was at work. The seven-year-old was standing beside his Dad at the back door. There followed a minute or two of light banter during which the stranger suggested to the boy that he go and fetch a pencil and paper so that he could write down his father’s telephone number. As soon as the boy was out of sight the stranger pulled out a pistol and shot Millar four times. When the boy returned his father was lying in a pool of blood.
Yet another RUC man murdered by the IRA. By the dire standards of Northern Ireland in the 1970s it was a very ordinary killing, scarcely reported in most British newspapers. The only unusual aspect was that it took place in Lisburn, a Loyalist stronghold and a garrison town where ordinarily the IRA would not have dared venture.
The author, Ian Cobain, has used the incident to paint a vivid portrait of Northern Ireland’s so-called “Troubles”. He sets the scene with a meticulous account of time, place and political context. The rioting and general mayhem, the burning out of Catholic families, the retreat to the ghettoes, the rebirth of the IRA, the heavy-handed response of British security forces, the normalisation of torture, assassination and atrocity. At one particularly low point a Unionist MP even demanded in the Commons that the RAF bomb the republican ghettoes on the grounds that “there were no innocent people in them”.
“How was our situation different from that of black people in Alabama?” asked one inhabitant of the ghettoes. “If you were black you couldn’t get a job. You could register to vote, but you couldn’t vote. We were the blacks of our time and place.”
As Cobain says:
Both communities appeared to believe they had an almost mystical right to this small piece of ground on which they lived and chafed. The roots of their animosity bored deeper over the years; as each generation came and went, they could readily recall the hurts suffered, but not always the injuries inflicted. Each complaint from one community about an injustice endured could be met with a retort of “Yes, but what about . . . ?”
By and large, however, the wider British public didn’t want to know, except when the “Troubles” spilled over into the British mainland.
Having thus graphically set the scene the author then tracks down and interviews those involved in the killing and shows the impact on their lives, as the ripples spread outwards. The killer, Harry Murray, and his accomplices were rounded up within days—there was a spy in their midst—and four of the five were convicted and imprisoned. Murray received a life sentence with a recommendation that he serve 30 years. Remarkably, his background was Protestant. In recent years he has been helping to run a sports club. Although a supporter of the peace agreement he remains unrepentant. “I did what I thought was right . . . He was the enemy. It had to be done.” One of his accomplices is now a university lecturer.
The author’s tone is factual. He reconstructs the killing and its aftermath using previously classified sources. He does not take sides or seek to glorify violence. If you are seeking a concise account of what happened in Northern Ireland, you will not do better than this. The only blind spot is that, for understandable reasons, the family of the dead man have not co-operated. Millar McAllister’s wife has remarried and his children are now, of course, grown up. It is not hard, however, to imagine the impact on small boys of having seen their father murdered.
Eventually it dawned on all sides that there were no winners from Ireland’s long war of attrition. The long, tortuous peace process began with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Despite the occasional glitch the overall impact on life in Northern Ireland has been remarkable and, with a handful of exceptions, no one wants to go back to where they came from. As Tony Blair, one of the architects of the peace, later observed, “Just occasionally, politics actually works”.
Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island
By Ian Cobain
Granta, 304pp, £18.99