Four loyalists were convicted on Wednesday of the savage sectarian killing of 15-year-old Catholic schoolboy Michael McIlveen in Ballymena, County Antrim in May 2006.

Three of the accused have been jailed for life for the murder of the popular red-haired boy, known by his nickname “Mickey Bo”.

Sentence on two other members of the killer gang, found guilty of murder and manslaughter respectively, has been adjourned until April.

After the 52-day trial, which was spread over four months, it took the Antrim Crown Court jury of eight women and three men just over seven hours to hand down their judgment.

McIlveen died in hospital on May 8th, 2006 from head injuries, the day after he was beaten with a baseball bat by loyalist youths who chased him and a friend.

This is the second jury to be told that McIlveen and his friend’s only crime was being “Catholics, no other reason”.

Him and his friends were set upon by loyalists after going looking for a Protestant friend. They chased him down an alleyway where he tried to talk himself out of trouble, only to be set upon. One of the gang, “nailed” him with a baseball bat, swinging it overhead, and also as if he were taking a golf swing.

The others, surrounding the defenceless teenager, “put the boot in”, and the hail of blows fractured his skull on both sides, causing blood clots to form in the brain.

The beating was described in court as a “brutal and savage” attack, carried out “for one reason and for one reason only” -- because he was Catholic.

After suffering catastrophic head injuries, the fatally injured boy was described as acting “mentally ill”, picking at the ground and unable to form words.

When they reach Michael’s home, his friend says he will phone an ambulance but again Michael says “it’s all right, my ma’s in there”.

His uncle says at one point, after going to bed, Michael “began to shake and began to kick out”.

An ambulance was called, but despite all efforts, he died from massive brain damage. His family was forced to make the heart-breaking decision to turn off his life-support machine.

At his funeral, the Bishop of Down and Connor Patrick Walsh told mourners that Michael’s name had been added to “the long, sad litany of those murdered by sectarian hatred”. Hundreds attended, with many young people turning out in football jerseys for the young Celtic fan with ‘Micky-Bo RIP’ printed on the back.

Despite widespread outrage, loyalists later mocked the murder victim with a video, using images of the deceased with captions such as “Murder Inquiry: Please contact somebody who gives a F*ck - Three kicks to the head and I was dead Hi Ho Hi Ho - F*ck Mickey Bo”. An Ireland flag with the words, ‘Fuck Mickey Bo’, was hoisted and burned on a loyalist bonfire that summer.

Local Sinn Féin Assembly member Daithi McKay welcomed Wednesday’s verdict. He said that the murder had devastated the local community and it was important that justice was delivered.

“This murder not only had a devastating impact on Michael McIlveen’s friends and family but an entire community and it is vitally important that justice is seen to be done,” he said.

“Sectarianism is a terrible scourge on our society and the Criminal Justice system needs to ensure that justice is served and seen to be done. The case has no doubt been very traumatic for the family of Michael McIlveen who have conducted themselves in a very dignified manner throughout the proceedings.

“In the immediate aftermath of the murder schools from different backgrounds in the area came together and many people became involved in work to try and tackle sectarianism in Ballymena.

“This work should continue and be built upon to ensure that such a terrible crime never takes place here again.”

At the conclusion of the trial, McIlveen’s sister Jodie read a statement on behalf of the family.

“We now feel that justice has been done for Michael.

“We now want to take this time to thank the witness who came forward and told their story, and the police, prosecutors, friends and family. The McIlveen family sympathises with the families of the accused. Now the trial is over, now we can try and rebuild our lives.”

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© 2009 Irish Republican News