Sheena Fagan Campbell was an activist, a law student, and a rising star in the Sinn Fein hierarchy. She was a single mother in Belfast who was determined to provide for her young child and at the time of her murder, she was engaged to be married. Sheena stayed on the legal, political side of the Troubles and was not a member of the Irish Republican Army but she did know many who were. The young law students’ growing popularity in Republican circles brought her to the attention of the police, the British Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a deadly Loyalist paramilitary group. The UVF insisted that Campbell was a member of the IRA and on this day in 1992, they executed her very publicly in a hotel bar in Belfast.
The North of Ireland is a complicated place – especially in July. Every year makeshift towers of debris, old tires, and wooden pallets reach higher and higher into the sky. They are decorated with sectarian slogans, political effigies, Irish flags (or Ivory Coast ones, since some can’t tell the difference between the two), and serious threats against Catholics, opposing politicians, Irish men and women, minorities, and the gay community. These dangerous displays are what they call culture this time of year and they are a horrifying example of the division that continues to exist in the North.
On this day in 1974, Dublin City Center was devastated by three large bombs that went off without warning in the span of about 90 seconds. They exploded in the middle of rush hour during a public transportation strike which had left more people in the area than usual. Injuries and casualties were astronomical. When a similar bomb exploded without warning in the city of Monaghan ninety minutes later, the incident became the worst and largest loss of life in Ireland’s more recent troubled history. The explosions injured nearly three hundred people and killed thirty-three civilians in all and decades later, despite multiple investigations, reports, and a mountain of evidence, no one has ever been charged or prosecuted for these attacks.
Reading headlines from Ireland over the last few weeks was strange because I could have sworn I’d read them before…and I have. Hunger Strike commemorations, anger over parades, riot police protecting interlopers over residents, arson fires at community centers, the birth of new political parties, and spies in the IRA have dominated the media of late. The anger, frustration, and general sense of “what the fxck” that came with it all was a bit stronger in the last couple of weeks than it has been in much of the last few decades. The pictures, headlines, and videos gave me a sense of foreboding and a lingering confusion which kind of felt like I was having a bad flashback. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Voices from the Grave is the topic of the day, or rather another result of its existence is. The bestselling book made headlines when it was published and not just because it was a gripping, page turner. It made headlines because almost as soon as it was published, it sparked off terrible controversy, a multitude of investigations, and court battles that continue to this day. In fact, now there’s a whole new chapter.
I arrived in Derry during a downpour, even though the sun was still peeking through the gathering storm clouds. By the end of the trip, I felt like the weather was a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Derry is rare. It is dark, but light pierces through it. It is grey but full of color. It is gathering and ready, but still and waiting. It is tragic and beautiful. Derry is a very special place.
My trip to Derry can’t be put into one post. There’s just too much to the city to compress it into one little tale and it is too special to me. It started when I bought a ticket to ‘Derry’ and the bus driver said he didn’t know where that was, but that he’d be happy to drive me to ‘Londonderry.’ This city is a complicated place, full of pride and controversy. Unlike it’s neighbors in the north, it has no towering, man-made “peace” walls, but it remains segregated and even its name is still hotly contested, as I learned that day. Its Loyalist population feels like its culture is under attack and being stripped away, just as they do in other parts of the region. This post is about their side of the river Foyle, in the town that many of them still call Londonderry.
If ever there was a man who stuck to his principles from birth to death, no matter what the cost, it was Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. He was born and raised as a hard-line Republican and he died a hard-line Republican as well, a little over eighty years later.
Lawyers are a group of people in an occupation that everyone loves to hate. Endless jokes use them as the punchline, there’s an eternal stream of songs and stories about how evil they are, and it seems that no matter which area of law they practice, they’re always hated by someone. It takes a thick skin, an obsessive attention to detail, endless patience, and a lot of manipulation to succeed in the field. In the North of Ireland, the law not only takes over their lives, but sometimes it ends them. It is not a job for the weak.
Rosemary Nelson lived her life trying to make the world a better place for everyone. She lived in a hotbed of Sectarianism during the Troubles but she represented people on both sides of the religious divide in small matters for years and went to bat for those that other people would ignore. She fought on behalf of the Garvaghy Road residents during the long Drumcree conflict in nearby Portadown, which thrust her firmly into politics and ruined any rapport she had with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC). That relationship only got worse when she decided to represent Colin Duffy, a man accused of killing their officers. That case would change her life and it ultimately took it as well. In the North, there have been many cases where certain factions of the population are unable to separate the lawyer from the criminal, and the assumption is that they’re one and the same. Even before she got Duffy released on a successful appeal, she was getting death threats from officers and Loyalist paramilitaries alike, just for representing him. There were twenty serious and documented death threats over a two year period, and two of them allegedly came directly from police officers. She dutifully reported each one, but was consistently refused protection by the police and the government, even after the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur stated on television that he felt her life was in danger. He recommended that the British government take action. They chose not to. She eventually testified about the threats before a committee of the United States Congress that was investigating human rights in the North of Ireland. It seems everyone was concerned about Nelson, except the very people whose job it was to take care of her.
The British government, MI5, and the RUC did not investigate any of these threats, nor did they ever give her protection. In case you feel like they didn’t do anything, rest assured that they did – they put Rosemary herself under surveillance for criminal activity. Between 1994-1998 security reports about her life increased until her home was bugged. She was seen as a criminal, rather than an attorney; and a threat, rather than a victim.
Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb planted under her car exploded on March 15th, 1999. The Red Hand Defenders, a Loyalist paramilitary group that was mostly made up of members of the LVF and the UDA, took credit for her assassination. Many of the members of the Red Hand Defenders were also RUC officers and British Army soldiers – people who belonged to the same organizations that had ignored her complaints for years, even while they were watching her every move. Strangely though, they didn’t have much in their records to investigate when it came to her death, despite all the surveillance – at least nothing they were willing to share with anyone else. There were a few inquiries into her murder and the final reports stated that all three agencies (the Government, MI5, and the RUC) had failed to protect her and had helped “legitimize” her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist paramilitaries. It also stated that these agencies and their employees had publicly threatened her and that their intelligence information had been “leaked”, making it easier for the murderers to get to her. It noted that numerous requests and warrants for surveillance footage or reports had been ignored completely. The inquiry couldn’t prove definitively that anyone in these departments had directly been involved in her death, but it certainly couldn’t prove otherwise either and their report clearly stated that investigators could not rule out the possibility that officers or soldiers might have aided the murderers.
Nelson was awarded the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize after her death – an award that honors “extraordinary heroes of conscience.” Her humanitarian status was celebrated and mourned world-wide in the aftermath of her murder – and while some Loyalists still see her as a symbol of hate, those who she spent her life trying to help remember her as an incredible and determined woman, who wanted justice for everyone whether they were young, old, Catholic, or Protestant. Today would be her birthday and I humbly suggest doing something wonderful in her honor. Help someone in whatever way you can, large or small, friend or stranger. I’m sure she’d want to be remembered in that way, rather than for the horrific way she was targeted, abandoned, and killed.
For many people a romper room is a play room full of games and toys or a television show that they grew up watching. It evokes a carefree and silly time in childhood that is full of play, puppets, and joy. For others, particularly in the North of Ireland during the Troubles, a romper room is a place of absolute horror, torture, and death – a room that is akin to a slaughterhouse or a snuff film set. These romper rooms were usually derelict homes or businesses where drinking, dancing, torture, and killing could occur without much fear of discovery or interference. One of the more brutal murders of that era took place in a UDA-controlled romper room in the Sandy Row area of Belfast, 41 years ago today. The victim’s name was Ann Ogilby and her killers were all female members of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). It wasn’t really a political killing even though the murderous women involved were loyalist paramilitaries – it was more of a jealous feud that ended in Ann’s horrific torture and savage beating death. The story was so repulsive and put such a spotlight on the women’s group that it resulted in the total dissolution of their unit.