The Last Word: A Pall of Darkness Falls on Belfast

John Lawlor, brother of murdered Catholic teenager Gerard Lawlor, carries his coffin from his North Belfast home. Lawlor was shot
dead by an Ulster Freedom Fighter (UFF) gunman.

By Nell McCafferty, Contributor
October / November 2002

Thank Christ the murdered man was Catholic. No Catholic will say that on the record, but every northern Catholic knows what it means, and no Catholic has to amplify when it is said privately. It means that if Gerard Lawlor, aged 19, shot dead by loyalists last Sunday night [7.21.02] in north Belfast, had been a Protestant, there would have been political hell to pay, and an attempt made to stick Irish nationalists with the total bill. David Trimble would have demanded the full pound of flesh on Wednesday in Westminister, the last sitting day of the House of Commons, and his prince would have been the expulsion of Sinn Féin from the Norther Executive, on the grounds that the IRA had broken its ceasefire. And with the expulsion of Sinn Féin would have come an SDLP protest and withdrawal. Trimble would then have leap-frogged electorally over Paisley. Ulster Unionists rule OK.

In the event, it nearly came to pass when the first five attempted murders last Sunday came late in the afternoon, in the shooting and serious wounding of Mark Blayney, a 19-year-old Protestant from Glenbryn, scene of the infamous protest last winter against the Catholic children of Holy Cross school. It is thought that the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) were responsible for this, but one republican is the same as another when Trimble et al are looking for ammunition. In the wake of the Blayney shooting, the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) promptly set out on the hunt for Catholics to kill – “a measured response” said the UFF – and found four potential targets throughout north Belfast, succeeding in killing Lawlor. Surgeons operated for eight hours to save the leg of wounded Blaynet, a harmless innocent working-class lad by all accounts, just like his counterpart Lawlor. Catholics generally heaved a sigh of relief at Blayney’s survival, and thanked the Lord it was the Catholic boy who died.

Except, that is, for the priest called Dan White, who recently moved into the parish of Whitewall where Lawlor spent his short life. The church in Whitewall was burned down by loyalists last year, and they petrol bombed White’s home some time ago. The white-haired sixty-something priest had had enough. After administering the last rites to Lawlor, he spoke gently, quietly and with no holds barred, directly to the television cameras. If a Protestant youth had been killed, he said, the Executive would be in meltdown, the police and army would be rooting through Catholic areas seeking the assassins – and they’d be absolutely right to search for and arrest them – but because a Catholic youth had been killed there had been scarcely a unionist political or British security ripple. It was pure luck that no other Catholics had died in the last few months of loyalist onslaught, he threw in for good, sober, calculated measure. “We demand,” he said with quiet deliberation, “that the authorities respect our feelings, that they listen to us.”

His remarks struck a chord among norther Catholics that has not been heard for a long-time. You could nearly hear Sinn Féin catch its breath at the sound of the Catholic establishment finally weighing in. In quick succession this past week, Mark Durkan (SDLP leader) castigated the blind eye turned by unionists to the anti-Catholic program that has been conducted be loyalists since late spring; Danis Bradley, deputy chair of the Police Authority, announced that the police are “not doing enough to prevent loyalists murdering Catholics” and Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Patrick Walsh, presiding over the funeral mass for Lawlor, declared that he was “murdered for one reason and one reason only – that he was a Catholic. And for some, being a Catholic is a crime deemed to merit execution.” He declared the night of Lawlor’s death to be “a night of manifest raw sectarian hatred,” and said that though north Belfast had been living for a year now under a “pall of darkness of frightening  intensity.” He called on those in authority” to ensure the “full protection ” of citizens by the police.

Gerard Lawlor’s parents, Sharon and John, called for no retaliation. Even in death, slim and trim and clad in a blue shirt in his coffin, you could see what a lively lad Gerard must have been. He looked fit, and very much the Belfast boy with a long thin face surmounted be a cheeky haircut. His eyelashes were black and long against his naturally pale skin. The faint five o’clock shadow on his jaw hinted at the dawning of maturity. He looked much like his da, who looks like a man you would otherwise be happy to jive with on a dance floor. Gerard Lawlor’s father John clutched his other four sons, aged 10 to 20, to him as they moved up the Whitewall Road behind the coffin. He rubbed the nape of his eldest son’s neck with his thumb. Tears spurted without warning from the eyes of the youngest boy, whose hand he held, and the tears visibly bounced off the boy’s face onto the road.

The four sons, in white shirts, black ties and clack trousers, and silver hoop rings in their ears, were accompanied on the long walk uphill by hundreds of other teenage males, similarly attired. Every young man has a pair of black trousers nowadays, because pubs and clubs insist on this attire, as a token of respectability and good intent.

The place where Gerard had his last drink, the Bellevue Arms, goes further, and a gently apologetic notice in its front window asks patrons to refrain from wearing “emblems that will give offense” – such as football shirts – to its mixed clientele. Gerard had worn a jumper over his Celtic shirt when he went there last Sunday night to watch a GA match on the big television screen. The Bellevue, on Antrim Road, is big and comfortable and well appointed, serves good bar food and has a restaurant where they do proper Sunday lunches.

When you leave the pub to curve down into the nationalist Whitewall Road area, you can take a shortcut down a narrow leafy path, or walk a bit off the main road and swerve down Floral Road has but one house but it is well lit. Still, if you head down there, chances are you’re Catholic. Gerard chose Floral Road, and chance was against him. The bullets that hit him after midnight were fatal, and the assassins sped off on a motorbike.

Behind the males at his funeral walked Sharon, Gerard’s mother, ample and numbed, who firmly held the hand of Siobhan Ramsbottom, the silenced 199-year-old mother of Gerard’s infant son Josh. The affianced couple were due to set up their own home within a few weeks.

Scattered through the cortege were faces that were vaguely familiar from television. That six-foot-tall man with the gentle liquid eyes is the father of Gavin Brett, the Protestant teenager whom loyalists mistook for a Catholic and shot dead almost exactly a year ago as he stood with Catholic friends outside St. Enda’s GAA club, to which, coincidentally, Gerard belonged. That man there, smallish and with horn rimmed glasses, is the living spit – is indeed the father – of cheerful Daniel McColgan, the 20-year-old postman, a Catholic, who was shot dead soon after, also by loyalists. That man standing utterly alone, without adornment or companion, is the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alec Maskey of Sinn Féin, who recently commemorated all northerners who died at the Somme, who called together community representatives, trade unions and politicians to discuss the fight against sectarianism, who saw but one representative of unionism, David Ervine, turn up. “Better a meeting than no meeting,” said Ervine, Stormont Assembly member and a leading figure in the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which represents the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

On the day of the funeral, in the small neat garden of the home where Gerard’s parents live, a “sold” sign pierced like a stake the rich, fresh bouquets of mourning that flowed down the green grassy slope of the lawn. “A chara,” said one wreath, laid out in the amber and black colors of St. Enda’s, which has lost four members now to loyalist assassins – one was an off-duty member of the Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR). Some mourning cards were signed en masse by teenagers, some by local take-aways, some by training centers, some by neighboring groups. The cards attached to the bouquets bespoke a close-knit community that is hanging on by its coffin nails. The “Sold” sign bespoke a family that was due to move away from it all, seeking a new life. There are many “For Sale” signs in Catholic Whitewall and neighboring Protestant White City. ♦


Author, journalist and broadcaster, Nell McCafferty is one of Ireland’s best-known commentators. The above piece first appeared in The Sunday Tribune newspaper.

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