On April 22 1978 Harry Murray went to a bungalow in the town of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, on the pretext of meeting Millar McAllister to talk about pigeons. Millar was a well-known and respected photographer of pigeons in the journal Pigeon Racing News and Gazette. After a brief conversation Harry took a revolver from his jacket, shot Millar in the chest, aimed another shot at the head, and then shot him again twice in the chest. Millar’s young son Alan witnessed everything and screamed for his mother as Harry ran from the scene. As well as his hobby of taking photographs of pigeons Millar McAllister was an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Harry Murray was an active member of an Active Service Unit in the IRA.
Anatomy of A Killing tells the story of what led Harry and his three accomplices to this point. The level of detail is remarkable. Author Ian Cobain traces the lives of all involved not just from childhood, but for several preceding generations, and in the process tells the story of the island of Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries. He describes the process of radicalisation, training and organisation that enabled them to participate in a political assassination. Contrary to the myths put about by British politicians IRA member were not ‘mindless thugs’, and Cobain reveals the reality in terms of background, gender, profession and why they had arrived at this point.
News of the murder was sparse in Britain, many British people taking the view that this was all happening in a far-off place and that with any luck British troops would prevail. Ironically on that same day Nottingham Forest secured the First Division title, which would have been of much greater interest to me as a 17 year-old. I was studying for my A-levels and knew more about 17th century French drama than what was happening much closer to home. That was exactly how the British state wanted it. They were correct in assuming that most people had little interest in visiting Northern Ireland for themselves, therefore making anti-Republican propaganda all the easier. One government minister who did visit Belfast was however truly shocked at the dire levels of poverty, unemployment and housing that the Catholic community had to endure.
The backgrounds of those who took part in the killing give countless examples of the hardship and discrimination going back several generations, ultimately leading to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The stance of the British government of the time was that, over time, the IRA and its supporters would run out of steam. After all, the British state had infinitely greater resources with the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, plus a licence to engage in shocking levels of brutality. Cobain details the horror – there can be no other word – of what happened in Castlereagh Police station, where all suspects were interrogated and sometimes tortured. He quotes from official police accounts of interviews and contemporaneous doctors’ reports, plus statements from those being questioned. As for the bigger picture Cobain contrasts what was being said in parliament – if anything was being said at all – with how Gerry Adams and other republican leaders were trying to keep the profile of the struggle high with the ultimate aim of getting the British to realise that they would never secure a military victory.
You know what is going to happen, and the murder of Millar McAllister is described with deep sensitivity by Cobain with no needless sense of drama; but by this point you why it was happening. Cobain has also traced those involved as they were released as a part of the Good Friday agreement, and he asks them to reflect on what happened; their answers are fascinating. The same privilege is accorded to Harry’s family. Anatomy of a Killing is an outstanding work, we get the historical sweep plus the perspective of the individual. The extensive bibliography is pointing me to other works. Ignorance on these issues is still shameful in Britain, as evidenced by recent Brexit-related events, but for those who wish to find out for themselves the truth is close at hand.
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