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Monday 17 December 2018

Meet Ireland's 'Am-BadAss-ador' - the man who killed a terrorist and believes his official residency is haunted by Pádraig Pearse

Canadian ambassador Kevin Vickers. Photo: Tony Gavin
Canadian ambassador Kevin Vickers. Photo: Tony Gavin
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

From the outside, the life of an ambassador can appear to be pretty cushy.

What with international travel and luxurious accommodation - not to mention an endless supply of Ferrero Rocher.

It's not a lifestyle you would immediately associate with Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers. But then Vickers isn't your typical ambassador.

In Canada, he rose from relative obscurity to become a national hero when he shot and killed an armed terrorist storming the Canadian Houses of Parliament in Ottawa in 2014.

The notoriety of the event resulted in him leaving his post and becoming ambassador to Ireland in 2015. But it wasn't long before he started making headlines here too.

In 2016, he rugby-tackled a Republican protester to the ground during a 1916 centenary commemoration for the Irish who fought in the British Army - earning him the nickname 'Am-BadAss-ador'.

Vickers wrestles with a protester during a State ceremony in Grangegorman Military Ceremony in 2016 to remember the Irish soldiers who died while fighting for the British Army during the Easter Rising. Photo: PA
Vickers wrestles with a protester during a State ceremony in Grangegorman Military Ceremony in 2016 to remember the Irish soldiers who died while fighting for the British Army during the Easter Rising. Photo: PA

And last summer he claimed - rather bizarrely - his official residency of Glanmire House was haunted by the ghost of revolutionary leader Pádraig Pearse. In fact, he invited any sceptics to spend an evening there so they might hear the spooky bangs in the night.

When I meet him in his offices and ask if Pearse's ghost is still acting up, he looks sheepishly at his assistant before saying: "I think it's best to say no comment, or we'll get the papers going again."

When he was a child, Vickers dreamt of becoming Pope. He grew up in New Brunswick's Miramichi - a region known for its rich salmon fishing, lumber, and proud Irish Catholic community. Despite his faith, and the fact that no fewer than 20 of his uncles were priests, Vickers soon realised the papacy was not for him.

Instead, he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force, and found his true vocation - working in a homicide investigations unit, eliciting murder confessions.

"That's what the lord put me on Earth to do," he says. "I should have stayed there."

During his time in the homicide unit, Vickers encouraged 17 men to confess to murder - all the more impressive given some cases had no witnesses. He attributes his ability to his father William, a dairy farmer.

"Before I would go into an interview with a homicide suspect, I would always think of my dad," he says. "He would tell me regardless of how repulsive the crime, you always respect the dignity of the person. That served me well in getting people who had committed a crime to confess."

Of course, there were cases that eluded him - including one case where three young prostitutes were brutally murdered: "I believe I know who was responsible for the crime. I had long, lengthy interviews and I got him to the point where tears would well in his eyes, but I could not get him to confess. So that's a haunting thing."

Vickers moved up the ranks to chief superintendent. Then, after 29 years, he became director of security at the Canadian parliament before being promoted to Sergeant-at-Arms. His public profile was carrying a ceremonial mace into parliament.

But on October 22, 2014, Vickers became a household name in Canada when he shot armed terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.

A Canadian citizen who self-radicalised, Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot unarmed soldier Nathan Cirillo outside Ottawa's war memorial before moving inside parliament buildings where he shot a guard. Vickers heard shots and grabbed his 9mm pistol and moved into the hall.

"At this time, he was hidden behind a gothic pillar and I could see the gun and the barrel of his weapon," he explains. "Anyways, the moment he shot and fired I dove through the air, shooting once.

"I fell at his feet and looked up at him, he looked down at me, and that's when I emptied my remaining bullets."

Proclaimed a national hero, Vickers describes the days following the attack as the loneliest moments of his life: "I woke up in the middle of the night, and I was crying and I could hear the gun shots again."

The morning after the incident, he received a call from his mother Monica - now 90 - asking him to return home. "I told her, 'Mom, I'm fine' and went to work."

His mother, knowing better, called the next day asking him to return again. By the third day her patience was waning: "Caoimhin Michael, I want you home!"

And so Vickers began the 1,000km drive from Ottawa to Miramichi.

Travelling home at 4am, he was overcome with a desire to pray for the man he had shot, for Nathan Cirillo, and for all the men he had taken confessions from. When he reached Mirachimi, he called his local priest, his daughter Laura, his son Andrew, his sister Mary and his mother. The following morning they had a family Mass.

Afterwards, Vickers wandered down to the river near his home, "and I said to myself my mother was right. I needed to be home."

He believes time helped him heal. "I have never not slept - you hear all these people being victims of post traumatic stress and I have never experienced that.

"I am fine, I think."

When he returned to work, it soon became apparent Vickers' life had changed forever. Tourists visiting parliament would ask for pictures and citizens approached him weeping. "I knew it wasn't going to be tenable for me to stay there, what with the notoriety of the event," he says.

He was asked to consider becoming an ambassador and offered a variety of countries to choose from.

Vickers decided on Ireland as his mother's family came from Bantry, Co Cork, and his father's relatives were from the midlands.

He says he has been extremely fortunate to have been in Ireland during such a culturally rich period that included the 1916 centenary celebrations. Which brings us nicely to the rugby tackle...

Vickers looks slightly embarrassed and admits: "Some pundits said 'what was he thinking?', but in those situations you don't think, you act. My whole life has been security so it was an instinctive reaction."

The images of Vickers hurling the man to the ground seem incongruous with the man in front of me.

There's a calmness to him, he's considered in everything he says. He becomes more animated however when talking about his mother, his children and grandchildren, all of whom are in Canada.

"I'm due to stay until 2019 but I think there may be a 'best before' date. Plus, with my grandchildren, the pull back home can be magnetic."

Irish Independent

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