Henry Cunningham: The long search for justice

The funeral cortege of Henry Cunningham in 1973.
The funeral cortege of Henry Cunningham in 1973.

The ongoing debate of how Troubles related murders are dealt with has been discussed in detail Derry in recent weeks.

A meeting at the Maldron Hotel in the city on Wednesday, August 26, saw relatives of those shot dead on Bloody Sunday ask the Department of Justice to come and take part in a discussion on how the new Historical Investigations Unit plan to take over from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). However, Department of Justice officials cancelled their planned attendance at the last minute.

Mr John Cunningham, on the left, pictured at the funeral of his son Henry.

Mr John Cunningham, on the left, pictured at the funeral of his son Henry.

Also on the night of Wednesday, August 26, a panel discussion involving the National Chairman of Sinn Fein, Declan Kearney and PSNI Chief Constable, George Hamilton took place. Entitled ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’ it set out to discuss on a wider basis how all parties involved should view how to deal with the deaths that took place as a result of the Northern Ireland conflict.

However, the Troubles did of course not just confine itself within the borders of the North. In January this year, the Cunningham family from Carndonagh launched legal action against the British Ministry of Defence.

In August 1973, 16-year-old Henry Cunningham was murdered by UVF gunmen as he travelled home from work on the M2, close to Toome on the Antrim-Derry border. Two of Henry’s brothers were also in the van. In 2008, a HET report said that one of the guns used in the shooting had been stolen from a UDR base and the HET report found evidence of collusion between loyalists and the security forces in the raid on the base. The following year two weapons used in the murder were found in separate incidents by the RUC, but were later destroyed.

The report also said that declassified documents noted that “there were high level concerns regarding RUC elements ‘too close to the UVF’ and ‘too ready to hand over information’ and further concerns that loyalist extremists had heavily infiltrated the UDR.”

The Cunningham family carrying the remains of Henry into Carndonagh Presbyterian Church in 1973.

The Cunningham family carrying the remains of Henry into Carndonagh Presbyterian Church in 1973.

It concluded that Henry Cunningham, other members of his family and work colleagues, were “specifically targeted as a group by the UVF in a pre-planned attack on August 9, 1973.”

The report stated they were all incorrectly identified as Catholics working in the construction industry.

However, in the intervening 42 years there has been the raw hurt of the murder of young Henry Cunningham.

On Tuesday, August 14, 1973, the ‘Journal’ carried a report on the senseless killing.

The family of Henry Cunningham at the head of the funeral procession.

The family of Henry Cunningham at the head of the funeral procession.

The headline was: “Widespread shock at Donegal youth’s murder” and the report said: “Carndonagh and its surrounding area was still reeling from shock and disbelief on Friday morning following the murder of 16-years-old Henry Cunningham, of Collon, Carndonagh. He died in a hail of bullets as the van in which he, his brothers, brother-in-law and two other men were travelling home was ambushed on the M2 motorway by a gunman or gunmen using a Sterling sub-machine gun.

“One of the other men received a bullet wound to the face. Young Cunningham was the front seat passenger. Detectives described the location as the perfect ambush position and said that all he had to do was walk to a car and escape.

“At least 14 bullets from an automatic weapon, probably a Sterling sub-machinegun, were fired and at least seven struck the van.

“Young Cunningham was a member of the well known Cunningham family, of the Protestant community in Carndonagh. Two of the other men in the van were Catholics from the area.

“The deceased’s brother-in-law who was travelling in the back of the van on the passenger side said that the first thing he saw coming towards the bridge was bullets hitting the windscreen and they then lay back on the floor.”

He said: “The van was then driven on a further mile by one of Henry’s brothers, who was driving. We then stopped cars overtaking us and told them to contact the police. We finally went over a fence to a house and telephoned the police and the hospital ourselves. I never thought this would happen, especially in broad daylight on a busy motorway.”

The ‘Journal’ report continued: “The boy who was injured in the face also accompanied them to the house and in Carndonagh on Friday, his father who was awaiting news of his condition said that he did not know why this had happened to his son or the other boys. He said the boys were not involved in anything and identified with no-one.

“They were just trying to earn a living,” he said.

“Henry Cunningham’s bother-in-law said they left each morning at 7 or 7.30am and returned in the evening. He said they could not get work in Derry or Carndonagh. They had on a previous occasion worked on a site in Creggan for around 14 months and had thought that was dangerous, but they did not think anything would happen to them on this job. He said they had been travelling up and down for the past three months and were engaged in plastering.

“The second of the two Catholic boys was still recovering from shock on Friday, but his mother recalled the story he had told her.

“She said her son was sitting in the van on the passenger side and just behind young Cunningham. The boy who was wounded in the face was beside him but fortunately her son escaped with an injury. She quoted him as saying that he saw three men at Toomebridge some time ago and that they had a good look at the van. He told her he thought that they had taken the registration. She said that both she and her son had expressed fear of the danger of travelling to work and he had now said he would not be returning. ‘I never wanted him to go at all,’ “ she said.

It was widely believed in Inishowen that they only reason for the attack was that the victims were travelling in a Donegal registered vehicle. Yet, they were still at a loss to know why the van was attacked and expressed no thoughts of bitterness or revenge.

“Gardai had assisted the RUC in locating relatives of the dead and wounded,” said the Journal.

An RUC spokesman said that it was much too early to say what the motive for the murder was, “but, it was nothing more than cold-blooded murder.”

The ‘Journal’ continued: “Police had difficulty at first in locating the site of the ambush scene for as one officer explained: ‘One bridge looks just like another just after you have been ambushed.’

“It is understood that the driver of the vehicle had some difficulty remembering where the ambush had been staged. Examination of a bridge over Dunsilly however, recovered at least 10 spent 9mm cases and on the road below tiny particles of the shattered windscreen were strewn about.

“The shock which the Inishowen area felt at the murder was reflected in the hundreds of people who attended the funeral at Carndonagh Presbyterian Church on Sunday. It was the biggest funeral Carndonagh had seen for a long time.

“Those in attendance included clergy and people from all denominations in the area and public representatives including TDs Paddy Harte and Liam Cunningham and County Councillor Bertie Boggs.

“The chief mourners were, Mr John Cunningham and Mrs Annie Cunningham, the boy’s parents; Annie Crowe, Sarah Walker, May and Ruby Cunningham, sisters; John, William, Thomas, Robert, Herbert, George and Albert Cunningham, brothers, Robert Crowe and Desmond Walker, brothers-in-law, Vera Cunningham, sister-in-law, Alan, Ronald and Ian, nephews and niece, Stephanie.

“Following a service at his home, the youth’s remains were taken to Carndonagh Presbyterian Church five miles away on the other side of town. Hundreds of cars lined the little country roads and cars were still coming through the small market town long after the boys remains had reached the church for a service by Rev H.M. Neely M.A.. Burial took place afterwards in an adjoining cemetery.

“Young Cunningham’s death brings the total number of Donegal people to die as a result of the Troubles in the Six Counties to five.”

Earlier this year, Herbert Cunningham said: “Henry says to me, ‘I’m hit’ and just slumped over. That’s all he said. I went on almost three miles with busted wheels until I could go no further.

“We were afraid they were coming after us. We didn’t know what was happening.”

Robert Cunningham said their case against the British Ministry of Defence is about justice.

“This is not about money, this is justice we’re looking for and we know we didn’t get it at the time.”