| 13.3°C Dublin

Megraw killed to cover up scam by prominent Provo

Close

Sean and Kieran Megraw. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

Sean and Kieran Megraw. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

Sean and Kieran Megraw. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

On the night of August 4, 1977, IRA boss Jack "Fingers" McCartan (55) was shot dead as he left a republican drinking club in Andersonstown in Belfast, a death that is still a matter of very considerable controversy within the Provisional IRA.

A British army foot patrol was in the area at the time and, apparently thinking it had been fired on by an IRA sniper, one of the soldiers fired a shot at a man he claimed to have seen pointing a rifle. The soldier reported missing his target and seeing the gunman run off. The army issued a statement saying McCartan had been hit in what it described as "single-bullet crossfire". It denied shooting McCartan.

The IRA quickly issued a statement saying McCartan was one of their members and had been assassinated by the British army despite being unarmed. It was also not unusual at the time for innocent people to be killed in exchanges between the IRA and the British army and, frequently, a 'blame game' would ensue following such incidents. These claims and counter-claims were common and McCartan's death passed off with relatively little further comment outside local and republican circles.

However, the RUC investigation cast doubt on the IRA's version of the killing. Following up the soldier's account, detectives found the bullet he fired embedded in a tree beside where he said he had seen the gunman.

Newlyweds Brendan and Marie Megraw happened to be passing at the time told the police what they saw, statements which apparently supported the British soldier's account and suggested another sniper had shot and killed McCartan.

Jack McCartan came from a large and well-connected republican family in west Belfast. At the time of his death he was a prominent Provo and manager of the Andersonstown Social Club. The previous manager had been shot dead inside the premises four years earlier and there were disputes over the running of the club, the most popular and most profitable run by the IRA.

Local sources began to point the finger at local IRA figures who, it was believed, wanted McCartan out of the way so that they could take control of the pub. McCartan was described locally as a flash character - a 'Brylcreem Boy', as was said at the time - who was obviously living beyond his means. Some believed he was murdered because of the suspicion that he was siphoning off money for his own ends.

This was all strongly denied by the IRA, which would have been very conscious of McCartan's high-profile and extensive and powerful links in west Belfast (his son, Thomas, became a local leader of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and was shot dead as a result of internal INLA feuding in December 1986). If it was established that the IRA was responsible for murdering Jack McCartan this could have sparked splits and, potentially, feuding in the area.

The IRA leadership would also not have wanted it publicly known that one of its most high-profile figures in west Belfast was lining his own pockets - particularly as the club he ran was specifically set up with the intention of raising money for the families of republican prisoners. McCartan had access to the money collected nightly in the club for the "Green Cross", the group in charge of raising money for prisoners' families. The money was counted in McCartan's office before being handed over to the families.

It was known at the time that the wives and families of IRA prisoners were complaining that they were receiving very little support, financial or otherwise. Hundreds of families were in this position and the whole issue was one fraught with sensitivities for the IRA. There were rumblings about people lining their own pockets while prisoners' families went hungry.

This Green Cross group was also highly active in the United States, where it was used to collect and funnel funds into Ireland for the IRA. Had news spread to the States that one of its best-known fund raisers, who was well known for hosting visits by American supporters, was pocketing money it would have caused severe embarrassment. Some republicans firmly believe the solution was to set up an assassination involving one or two snipers and pass it off as a cross-fire killing or deliberate murder by the British army. The story would then be put around that the Brits killed Jack McCartan because of his high profile in the IRA.

Remarkably - given the IRA's position at the time that Jack McCartan was one of their top men and supposedly murdered by the British - his name has completely disappeared over the years from their list of 'martyrs'. If, as might have been suspected by the IRA at the time, Brendan Megraw's witness statement would have provided sufficient evidence at Jack McCartan's inquest to support the British army side of the story - and cast doubt on the IRA's - then they had a potential problem. If his statement ruled out British army responsibility the finger of blame would turn back towards the IRA - and the questions over missing money might arise.

Brendan Megraw (23) was doubly unfortunate in that two of his friends from childhood had been 'turned' into agents by the British army to act as spies on the local IRA. One was Myles McGrogan (22), who was shot dead by the IRA in west Belfast in April 1977. McGrogan and another young man, Vincent Hetherington (21) had been in the IRA and were turned by British army intelligence after they were acquitted of murdering a police constable in south Belfast in May 1974. Despite being correctly identified as British agents Hetherington and McGrogan's bodies were not disappeared. They were simply executed, their bodies left in the alleyways where there were shot.

There was no known connection between Brendan Megraw's disappearance and the spying done by McGrogan and Hetherington. They were members of the IRA, but Megraw was not. His main interests, his family and friends said, were in car and motorcycle mechanics, rock music and fashion. Since his marriage he was also spending almost all his time with his wife, who was pregnant. He had worked in a training scheme in west Belfast and had just got his merchant sailor's ticket to work on cargo boats, the best-paid work available for young Catholic men in Belfast at the time.

On the morning of Saturday April 8, 1978 a gang of nine or 10 Provos forced their way into the Megraws' flat in the Twinbrook estate in west Belfast and overpowered Marie, who was on her own.

In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance Marie and Brendan's family appealed to the IRA and anyone who could help.

Marie told the Irish News that the gang had burst in on her at breakfast time. "When I opened the door there was a man there wearing a stocking mask and rubber transparent gloves, like surgical gloves. He burst in past me and eight more men followed him, all dressed the same way."

She said they told her they were going to give her an injection and when she told them she was pregnant she was told it would not harm her child. "Two of them held me down and he stuck it in my arm. After a couple of minutes or so I felt drowsy."

She said the gang was ransacking and searching the flat and one showed her a picture of her husband and asked who it was. When she said it was Brendan they told her "it wasn't," she said.

When Brendan arrived home he was overpowered and, Marie said, he agreed to go with the gang without resistance. "I've nothing to hide. I didn't do anything," he told them. The gang told her not to report the incident and he would be home soon. She called Brendan's mother, Brigid, in the early evening and was taken to hospital for treatment.

Brendan had been in Belfast city centre that morning with his mother - who died in 2002 without ever knowing what befell her son - and had left her at her home nearby and returned home to his wife. Local people reported the gang took Brendan away in a Volkswagen estate car.

Marie's appeal remained unanswered. She and the Megraw family accepted he was murdered, but were not allowed the benefit of a body or explanation, as in the cases of the 16 other people forcibly disappeared by the IRA, an offence defined as a war crime under the Geneva Convention.

It was not until the late 1990s that the Megraws, like the other families, finally realised that Brendan was one of several who had disappeared and only after the public campaigning started by Helen and Seamus McKendry for information about the whereabouts of Helen's mother, Jean McConville.

In 1999, after a demand by the then-US President Bill Clinton, the IRA finally relented and began providing some information about the whereabouts of the graves. This process has now continued for 15 years with drip-fed information, including in several instances, false leads. The remains of Brendan Megraw were eventually discovered in Oristown bog, Co Meath, on October 1.

The McGrogan and Hetherington connection to Brendan Megraw also allowed the IRA to make the claim in 1999 - in finally admitting responsibility for his disappearance - that he was murdered because he was an "agent provocateur" for the British. He was, thus, branded as - in republican parlance - a 'tout' and deserving of his fate.

What happened in the aftermath of his abduction, murder and secret burial remains, for the time being, another IRA secret but almost certainly a lie. The real and known agents, McGrogan and Hetherington, were dispensed with in the ordinary, very public way, their bodies unhidden.

No reason was given why Brendan Megraw - if he was guilty of the same offence - merited disappearance. Some republicans firmly believe it was because the IRA also wanted to bury the highly-damaging scandal in its own ranks of money donated for needy prisoners' families being filched by one of its own corrupt bosses.

Sunday Independent