Conspiracy of silence over slaughter of kick-boxer who saw off IRA thugs
EVERY adult in Castlewellan knows what happened to Matthew Burns, who murdered him, why he was murdered and that the people who murdered him are still strutting around in their midst.
What's more, the people of Castlewellan know that the IRA members - most of whom are Sinn Fein election workers - have enriched themselves through organised crime.
The events that led to Matthew Burns's murder and the injuring of his brother Patrick began in early 2000. Matthew had become involved in a local dispute that had pitted him against local IRA figures,including the "officercommanding" of the localIRA unit.
There are very few people who could have tangled one-to-one with Matthew Burns, who was an expert kick-boxer with a body that looked as if it was chiselled from stone.
The row with the IRA grew during late 1999 and early 2000, to the point where thelocal IRA boss directed that Matthew be given a vicious beating and be shot, probably in the legs or arms.
A gang of seven IRA men was gathered to administer the usual vicious punishment beating. They were armed with baseball bats, at least one of which had six-inch nails hammered through it, and one had a handgun.
The gang, all wearing balaclavas, confronted Matthew outside his mother's house in JF Kennedy Park on the outskirts of Castlewellan. Despite a glancing blow to his head which opened a large gash, Matthew was able to keep on his feet. And despite being unarmed, he managed to set about the gang in the way that only a champion kick-boxer could. He was enormously strong, and in a prolonged one-against-seven contest he overcame the gang, finally pulling the balaclava off one man - the local IRA "officer commanding" and exposing him to people who had come out of their houses. Unmasking the IRA man almost certainly saved his life at this point as the "commander" could not afford to be seen giving the order to have Matthew shot in front of witnesses. The gang ran off.
But that humiliation - a seven-man IRA gang bested by one enormously strong young man - sealed Matthew's eventual fate. In Castlewellan, just as in Belfast Short Strand where Robert McCartney was murdered for standing up to the IRA for his friend, no one is allowed to resist the will of the IRA.
Matthew, who was 26 and in a relationship with a girl from Newcastle, Co Down, became the subject of a vendetta. In February 2001 a booby-trap bomb in a paint tin was placed on his car during a visit to his girlfriend's mother's house. Unwittingly Matthew knocked the bomb on to the pavement, where it exploded. Though he was unhurt by the shrapnel wrapped around the explosive charge, his girlfriend received aserious leg injury.
The couple, who were by then expecting a daughter, spent time living in bed and breakfasts and a hostel before getting a small public authority house in Ballynahinch, a town about 12 miles from Castlewellan where they felt safer. Matthew, however, continued to visit his family,calling regularly to hisparents' home.
After that failed bomb attack the IRA began a new tactic: smearing Matthew as a drug dealer. The smear was totally fabricated, say his family and friends. Matthew worked as a joiner and at the time had moved into working on a sub-contract basis. The fact that he and his girlfriend had also lived in B&Bs and a hostel before getting on an emergency housing list suggests that he was not in receipt of drug profits.
He was also a fitness fanatic who never smoked or drank. After work he spent a great deal of time training at kick-boxing with the Northern tae kwon do academy, where he was regarded as one of the North's most promising fighters. He was dedicated to the campaign to have tae kwon do included as an Olympic sport and hoped to compete in a future Olympic Games. His dedication to the sport precluded any use of recreational drugs.
The whispering campaign about him being a drug dealer went on for months in the latter half of 2001. Matthew knew he was being smeared and could again be attacked, but he refused to submit to threats to stay away from the area he grew up in and where his mother and family lived.
THE end came on February 21, 2002. Matthew called to his mother's house, where he was being collected by his brother Patrick for their regular training session at a gymnasium in Rathfriland. Their other brother, Sean, had the 'flu and had dropped out of that night's training session.
Less than a minute after leaving the house, and only a few hundred yards away as the car slowed before turning on to the main Castlewellan to Rathfriland road, a gunman opened fire with a high-powered assault shotgun, an Italian-manufactured weapon that fires steel ball bearings with destructive power.
The first blast disabled the car engine. The second, fired at point-blank range, tore through Matthew's chest and neck. Two of the steel pellets hit Patrick in the hand and arm.
Mrs Burns recalls: "Matthew arrived around 6.40pm and sat with me in the living room. He was always talking about diets and discussing this and that about diet. Sean would have been there that night but he had the 'flu. There was only Patrick there. When Matthew was going he kissed me on the forehead. He was very affectionate and protective. He had his (gym) bag in his hand at the door and he said he would see me later.
"About seven o'clock there was rap at the door and this young fellow was standing there and asked if I was Mrs Burns. He said Patrick was in an accident, Patrick was hurt. I went down there. I saw the police tapes and the ambulance. There was a policeman there and I just ran under the tapes and said, 'I am their mother.' Patrick was standing there. He was very, very pale. He said not to go up to Matthew. Matthew was lying on a stretcher. He was not covered.
"I still thought it was a car accident. It was only when my daughter came running down, without her shoes, and said Matthew had been shot. I knelt there holding the blanket over him for maybe two hours before the undertakers came to take him away."
The PSNI believe the man who shot Matthew is a supposed member of the "Real" IRA from nearby Kilcoo, brought in by the local Provisional IRA boss to carry out the assassination.
It is suspected that nine people were involved in the murder. One would have spied on Matthew and Patrick at their parents' home, using a pay-as-you-go mobile phone to alert the two gunmen waiting for the car as it slowed down at the corner. The gunmen would then have been collected by two other men and taken to an IRA safe house, where their clothes were burned and they showered off any residues from the shotgun blast.
For the Burns family, the murder was just the start of a heartbreaking series of events. Two months later Patrick, who initially seemed to be recovering well from his injuries, began to feel ill. He was diagnosed with cancer and died on December 9, 2003. Their younger brother Sean received a death threat from the IRA in a phone call, telling him if he did not leave Northern Ireland he would be killed. He was forced to leave his home and his job and move abroad.
The PSNI investigation into Matthew's murder ran into a wall of silence. No witnesses came forward and people arrested and questioned uniformly sat in silence. No one was charged.
The vilification of Matthew Burns continued unabated after his death, with a local newspaper running stories that he was a drug dealer with links to loyalists. The family are dismayed by the newspaper stories. Mrs Burns said her son was a hard-working, self-employed joiner who spent every spare moment he had training or taking part in kick-boxing competitions.
At the inquest last November, the PSNI officer in charge of the investigation dismissed the claims that Matthew was a drug dealer as a "smoke screen" put up by his killers. He said the murder was carried out by the IRA as a result of a personal vendetta.
The local IRA has continued its harassment of the Burns family. Every time they place a wreath or bouquet of flowers at the corner where Matthew was killed - on the anniversaries of his murder, on his birthday and at Christmas - they are stolen in the night. They also desecrated his grave, breaking a bronze statuette of a kick-boxer put there as a tribute by Matthew's kick-boxing club friends. Matthew's remains eventually had to be disinterred from the local graveyard and reburied at Bryansford cemetery, a safe distance from Castlewellan.
AT THE time Matthew Burns was murdered Sinn Fein was in government in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
His murder at the hands of members of the IRA who double as Sinn Fein election workers attracted almost no publicity. The local SDLP MP Eddie McGrady raised the issue in Westminster, but the case was ignored by the Northern media. The story of Matthew's murder was inconvenient for politicians and journalists unwilling to upset the "peace process" with such unhelpful revelations that, while its leaders were sharing power at Stormont, Sinn Fein's foot soldiers were murdering people and engaging in all forms of organised crime.
Matthew's mother and father, Patrick, were left alone with their two daughters to suffer in silence. The vilification of Matthew in a local paper turned them away from attempting to have his murder highlighted in the media. They still receive anonymous threats and the IRA figures who murdered Matthew still jeer at the family in the street.
The appalling thing is that almost everybody in Castlewellan knows who killed Matthew Burns and why. They will see the killers taking part in the Easter Sunday march to the local cemetery today. They know that local IRA people have all become mysteriously and ostentatiously wealthy. They can see their new houses and new cars.
They also know that the same people will be out canvassing for Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane - the woman who ran the "Colombia Three" campaign - in the forthcoming Westminster election.
They know all this, but they also know what happensto people who breach theOmerta, the code of silence.