The widow of independent councillor Patsy Kelly has described a report into the murder of her husband as the ‘start of closure’ for the family after it moved closer to uncovering the details of Crown force involvement in the killing.
A Police Ombudsman’s report into the brutal assassination was written with typical euphemism and understatement but ultimately admitted that there had been “collusive behaviour” and “failings” by the then RUC police.
The Ombudsman found that the RUC had not properly investigated members of the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) who were accused of being behind the murder, for which no one has ever been convicted.
The father of five who was passionate about civil rights had locked up the pub he was managing in Trillick in the early hours of July 24th, 1974, and was driving home when he was abducted on a nearby road. A crucifix and memorial plaque now mark the spot where his hair, blood and shirt buttons were found.
When his body was discovered almost three weeks later, his widow was advised not to go to the morgue. “I was desperate to see him,” she Teresa Kelly. There were six bullet wounds and a green nylon rope, attached to a 56-pound weight, had been tied around his waist to weigh him down in a lake.
Both UDR and RUC members involved were linked by the report to two UVF loyalist paramilitary groups operating in the Fermanagh area in the mid-1970s.
Former UDR man Oliver Gibson has previously been linked to the murder of Mr Kelly and has been accused of providing the vehicle used in the attack. He is referred to by the codename ‘UDR Member 20’ in the report. Gibson, who died in 2018, was one of the founders of the hardline unionist DUP and later became a member of the Stormont Assembly for the party.
Another former UDR member, David Jordan, is said to have admitted being present on the night Mr Kelly was killed and implicated two of his former colleagues, including Gibson.
Members of the locally recruited UDR have been linked to scores of murders throughout the conflict and have almost entirely escaped justice.
Speaking to the Irish Times the day after the report was published, Mrs Kelly was emotional.
“We had been built up so many times and then got let down a bagful,” she says. “When the ombudsman was reading us the report, it was failing after failing. I wasn’t able to take it all in. Just getting that bit of truth through – it means so much.”
“I’ll not get a chance to read it properly until my son goes home. I’ll read it two and three times.”
Looking up at her husband’s picture on the living room wall — “I talk to him every day,” says Teresa Kelly — she reveals this was the home the couple moved into after they married in 1966. She points to a house across the way on the remote stretch of road surrounded by green fields.
“That house was the school me and Patsy went to as children. We would have walked in our bare feet from the month of May to Golan school,” she says. “We used to meet at the dances. He was very light-hearted and jolly, he loved life. Jiving was the whole go and he just loved that too.”
Her memories of his disappearance and the months that followed are vivid.
She knew something was “drastically wrong” when he didn’t return home from work. She worked day shifts at the same bar to support their children, who were all under the age of six at the time.
“He drove in and left me back to the house that evening. The children went out giving him hug and kisses, that went on every night,” she recalls.
“I went out to close our gates after midnight and I often do think to myself, ‘I wonder did the car go past with his body in it at the time?’ I always worried that it wasn’t safe for him driving home at night as he carried the box of money from the bar. He’d say, ‘don’t you worry, the only people I’ll stop for are the men in uniform and not for anybody else. I’ll only be stopping when I see a security forces’ red light at a checkpoint’.”
One of the most damning findings of the report — and one that the family always suspected — was evidence of “collusive behaviours” between some Crown force members and loyalist paramilitaries.
Rumours began to circulate in the nationalist village shortly after the councillor’s abduction that members of the UDR had been involved.
With his hand resting on the 134-page report on an armchair beside his mother, Patsy Kelly says his father was a “decent man” who respected “those in uniform. I may not have met my father but his presence has always been there. There was so much trepidation and not daring to hope about this report as we’ve had so many let downs. It went much further than we expected.
“This report shows it was uniforms ‘plural’ — in terms of the uniforms of the British army and the RUC — that have let us down.”
Teresa Kelly remembers her initial faith in the police investigation, despite an encounter with the first policeman who came to their door.
“I noticed he had a smell of drink on him. He apologised and said he couldn’t face me without having a drink. He started questioning me, asking if it had happened before. He said that people can often turn up across the Border with another woman.
“But I put my trust in them. I remember another police officer telling me, ‘I can guarantee you if we get the body, there’ll be enough evidence and there’ll be a conviction’. When Patsy’s body was found that day, I thought at least they’d be able to do something.”
Her son, who lives in County Kerry, says it was the local community who “drove the search” for Patsy Kelly’s body.
“The security forces, in terms of the police and at a later stage, army, were if you like, shamed, in having to take part in the search because the community took over.
“My father was a councillor elected to serve the people of this area; people just responded. Those with little money were taking time off work, going days without pay to look for him. They were coming to the local GAA club to donate food. Women were coming to this house making soup and sandwiches.
“There was so much thought of him and so much energy put into finding him, that on the evening of his removal from the morgue to the chapel, the locals refused to leave him. They kept guard overnight before his funeral.”
How did Teresa Kelly cope in those years raising her young family and struggling with her loss?
“Well, I had two choices, either I could lie on in bed and not get up and not face the world or I could get up and face the world and keep going. Thankfully I never had any bitterness and still don’t. Sure where would that get you?”
Her son adds: “I think it’s important to say that during that time period when my mother did interviews with the press, she stated that she prayed for the killers and appealed for absolutely no retaliation. She raised all of us to have no hatred or bitterness. And as well as looking after us, she stepped in to hold my father’s council seat in honour of what he’d started.”
After the murder, a UDR checkpoint was set up directly outside the family home. Teresa Kelly was regularly stopped and had her car searched “inside out” when she drove into the village, even when she was heavily pregnant.
“There were no houses round here at that time, there were no lights on the road. My brother stayed with me until after Patsy was born. My mother wanted my other brothers to stay with me: “I said, ‘no mammy, I’m going to have to do it myself’.
“But, I’ll tell you, I put in many a night standing looking out a window so scared.”.
As a 32-year-old widow, she recalls how she feared for her life after a chilling phone call.
“I was getting the children ready for school. The phone went and this English voice said, ‘how would you like a 10in knife stuck in your back’.” She breaks down and adds, “I was so scared of someone doing this to me. I was afraid for the children.”
Patsy also recalls harassment during his childhood: “The abnormal was normal; we didn’t call it intimidation at the time because that was our normal.”
Over the following decades, the family’s solicitor, the late Pat Fahy, began helping them “dig and dig”:
“He was seeking meetings with the RUC, he was like a dog with a bone, he refused to ever take no for an answer, he would scratch beneath the surface and always test anything he was told by the police,” explains Patsy Kelly.
Holding up a copy of the report, he adds: “So Pat Fahy’s fingerprints are on this. It became a personal crusade.”
Fahy submitted the family’s first complaint to the ombudsman in 2002. A second was forwarded in 2018, resulting in last Wednesday’s report.
The investigative journalism of Anne Cadwallader in the late 1990s and Trevor Birney in the early noughties was also key in “building momentum”, with the case reopened by police in 2003.
The mother and son acknowledge that the watchdog investigation could be the last of its kind if the controversial legacy Bill is enacted by the British government, in its attempt to “draw a line under the past” by ending prosecutions and inquests for all conflict-related crimes.
“It’s frustrating to think that this could be one of the last reports because there’s so many other families, regardless of political persuasion or what community they’re from, who deserve what we have got,” says Patsy Kelly.
The Kellys want a fresh inquest, describing the first one as a “whitewash”. They feel vindicated by the report but say it is the “beginning” of a process.
“I do feel a sense of calm for the first time in … well, it will be 49 years this July. This is the start of closure,” says Teresa.
Looking back, what was it that made them keep going after so many “let-downs”?
“Personally, I wanted to get truth for my mother,” replies Patsy Kelly.
It’s his mother who has the last word: “I used to say to Pat Fahy, ‘I’m not dying until I hear the truth. The children deserve it more than me, it was for their sake.”