‘I just couldn’t believe he’d have the nerve to run to be President’
Jerry McCabe’s widow Ann has spoken out in solidarity with the families of other IRA victims, writes Maeve Sheehan
ANN McCabe last saw her husband at 6am on the morning he was killed. He was getting dressed. She wondered aloud if it was too early to have a cup of tea. He wondered if his shirt was ironed. The front of it is, so keep your jacket on, she joked.
Before he left, they had a conversation which she has always kept private but which she says reflected their love for each other. He left the house to join his colleague, Detective Garda Ben O’Sullivan, to escort a van delivering cash to post offices. The first stop was Adare at 6.50am. At 6.55am he was dead. He didn’t stand a chance.
Ben O’Sullivan later recalled: “I saw two men armed with guns... They were wearing dark balaclavas, dressed in black and green camouflage battle-dress. They carried what appeared to be Kalashnikov rifles. They had the guns pointed at us... In an instant, without any warning, without any opportunity for us to protect the SDS van, one of them opened fire. The first blast struck me on the right shoulder.
The second blast blew my hands off the steering wheel and I was forced on to the handbrake. The driver’s window blew in around me. I saw Jerry’s hands going into a spasm. His hand was contorting, his arm was blue and white. When the shooting ceased I heard shouting but I had no idea what was being said. I called Jerry three or four times. I said, ‘Jerry, Jerry, Jerry.’
There was no response.” Since Jerry McCabe was killed in a botched IRA post office robbery on June 7, 1996, his widow, a modest and apolitical mother and grandmother, was forced into the public arena in pursuit of justice for her husband. Before his killers had even been tried, Jerry McCabe became a political pawn, with Sinn Fein bartering for their early release from prison as a condition of peace in Northern Ireland. Before they were sentenced for manslaughter in 1999, Martin McGuinness crowed that they would qualify for early release.
Ann McCabe kept her counsel, clutching to a promise from the government that they would serve their full term. When Bertie Ahern threatened to renege on that promise in December 2004, her anger propelled her to break her customary silence. She railed against the government, and her husband’s killers stayed in jail to finish out their sentences. She went on to publicly challenge Gerry Adams to condemn her husband’s killing on St Patrick’s Day in Washington, made a documentary about her husband, and helped co-author a book in his honour.
Her work done, she retreated to her grief and her family until last week, when she felt she could no longer stay silent about the presidential ambitions of Martin McGuinness. This is the man whom she believes was an IRA leader when her husband was killed; she believes he visited one of her husband’s killers, Kevin Walsh, when he was on the run for capital murder, that he lobbied for their early release from jail and only declared his unequivocal condemnation of the killing at the start of his presidential campaign.
Yet he is asking the Irish electorate to make him President of Ireland, head of state, commander in chief of the Defence Forces. So on Wednesday morning, Ann McCabe, who hates giving interviews and abhors the public spotlight, told her children that she felt compelled to speak out one more time. She prepared a statement for the local newspaper and that afternoon gave her only interview in the offices of her brother-in-law, Pat Kearney, in Limerick city.
She was aghast when she heard the news of his entry into the presidential race on the radio. “I just couldn’t believe that he would have the nerve to come down here and run to be President of our country,” she said.
“I just ignored it. We had decided that we weren’t making any further statements as a family,” she said. “I have spoken out in the past. We decided that I had done what I had to do, what I felt I had to do, and what I felt better about doing, as regards the documentary and the book. I just felt that we had to let go. I felt I had my family to think of, my lovely grandchildren. Only one of them knew Jerry, he was only three or four then.”
So she watched the presidential campaign unfold — she said the only one of the candidates she saw tackle McGuinness on his past was Gay Mitchell — and then she went on a two-week holiday. She returned the week before last, a string of text messages on her phone and a growing mound of newspaper articles reporting the families bereaved by the IRA coming forward to challenge McGuinness.
They included the families of Garda Michael Clerkin, blown up in a booby trap bomb by the IRA; Detective Garda Frank Hand, murdered by the IRA during a post office robbery; Private Patrick Kelly and a trainee garda, Gary Sheehan, killed in an IRA shootout while attempting to rescue the kidnapped businessman, Don Tidey; and Brian Stack, chief prison officer at Portlaoise Prison, also murdered by the IRA.
‘If McGuinness wants to represent our country he has to come clean’ She flinched at McGuinness’s incredible claim that he left the IRA in 1974 and that people didn’t care about his past. Last week, she felt she couldn’t stay silent any longer.
She issued a statement in solidarity with the Hand, Stack, Clerkin and Kelly families that linked Martin McGuinness straight back to one of her husband’s killers. “We know that the Garda Siochana believe that Martin McGuinness visited Kevin Walsh while he was hiding in a safe house in County Cavan,” the statement said, getting right to the heart of the matter.
She challenged McGuinness to explain why he met Kevin Walsh. Why did he not urge Walsh to turn himself in? Why did he not report Walsh, the most wanted man in Ireland at the time, to gardai? “We believe he also knows the whereabouts of Paul Damery and Gerry Roche, who have been on the wanted list by An Garda Siochana since June 1996,” the statement said. Martin McGuinness insists the allegations are untrue. “For the record I did not meet with Kevin Walsh in aftermath of the killing of Garda McCabe and I have no information about the whereabouts of any other suspects or if indeed there are any other suspects.” But Garda sources who were close to the investigation told the Sunday Independent last week how the allegation came about.
After killing Detective Garda McCabe, the IRA gang scattered in panic to a succession of safe houses. Kevin Walsh found refuge in Mullagh, Co Cavan. He stayed there for more than a year until his arrest in March 1998, living in a room behind a false partition, with guns for protection and false passports to further his escape. Gardai raided the house and the people who sheltered Walsh were arrested and brought to Henry Street Garda Station in Limerick. During the course of those interviews, detectives were told that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had visited Kevin Walsh at the house in the months before his arrest. They were never called to testify at Walsh’s trial.
The murder charge was reduced to manslaughter because of a lack of evidence, (speculation at the time suggested there may have been some intimidation of witnesses) and the IRA gang pleaded guilty. The Garda file is now archived in Dublin. Ann McCabe doesn’t believe McGuinness’s denial. “As far as I am concerned he has lied consistently from day one,” she said.
“If he wants to be President of Ireland, to represent our country, he has to come clean,” she said. “He doesn’t want to be asked about the past; that is the problem. He doesn’t want to be asked. How can you propose to be President of our country when you don’t face up to the evil and awful past that he has?” She believes the political establishment has “gone a little bit soft on him as regards his past”. That is why in her statement she also challenged the other six presidential candidates to demand that McGuinness co-operate with ongoing investigations into the “terrorist crimes that claimed the lives of the servants of the State”.
This past week has not easy for Ann McCabe. She enjoys talking about her husband’s killing about as much as McGuinness enjoys hearing what she has to say. It pains her to read about her husband in the newspapers. Details are stuck in her mind, such as how her husband didn’t have time to take his hands out of his pockets when they started firing. She has read all the reports that this was a botched robbery and that her husband wasn’t meant to be killed.
“But why do you start shooting and you are stopping and start shooting again. Why do you do that? Why? I am sure Kevin Walsh has the answers to that,” she said. She clearly hates having to talk about her husband in this way. Ask her how they met, however, and her face lights up. “I met him at a dance one night. You know, I knew his parents before I knew him,” she said. She was the daughter of a garda, and he was a garda, from Ballylongford, Co Kerry. They clicked.
He made her laugh. They had fun. “He wasn’t a singer but he would do the prompting. The Rose of Tralee, and Galway Bay,” she said. Her talent was as a step dancer. On a trip to New York with Jerry once, he cleared a table into a make-shift stage so she and her cousin could demonstrate their step-dancing skills.
“There is not a day goes by where Jerry’s name isn’t mentioned, by my friends, by my family, by my extended family... And all in a nice way,” she said. “I went through a very, very bad patch for a number of years, maybe eight, nine, 10 years. To this day, I’ll tell you something, the pain has never gone away. That pain never, ever leaves me,” she said. Nor does the loneliness or just missing him: “It’s easy for Martin McGuinness to say move on: you never move on, never, and I mean that sincerely. You never move on.”
She believes that there is a generation of young people who do not remember either Jerry McCabe, or Frank Hand, or other gardai and members of the defence forces who were murdered by the IRA. So her message to young voters is this: “Consider the past that he (McGuinness) has. I know he has said let go of the past, but with a past where my husband was concerned, they should not — lest we forget Jerry McCabe.” That is why she has joined with the other families — the Hands, the Kellys, the Clerkins, the Stacks — in speaking out. “It really is in solidarity with them. I felt the time was right now and that they had to be supported.”
Ann has said her piece. “I won’t be speaking again,” she said. The floor is open to Martin McGuinness.