‘His life was taken, ours were destroyed’

Michael Toner. 0802JM70
Michael Toner. 0802JM70

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is examining the possibility of bringing charges against the RUC men who elicited a murder confession from four Creggan teenagers in 1979.

The confessions followed the murder of a British Soldier, 34 years ago. Twenty two year old Lt. Stephen Andrew Kirby, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was shot through the heart on Wapping Lane on Valentine’s Day 1979, he died instantly. The Derry Four, namely Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish, Gerard Kelly and Gerry McGowan, then all teens, were arrested and charged for his murder.

When they refused to accept a plea bargain they were advised to skip bail and go on the run. The Creggan boys became fugitives.

Though never arrested or questioned by the authorities in the South, they were cut off from family and social circles, with no support network.

The teenagers were forced to leave home forever rather than face life in prison. They made new homes in Kerry, Waterford, Buncrana and Dublin but Derry was never far from their minds.

Despite their anger, at how their lives were turned on their heads Mr. Kelly said: “I pray for Stephen Kirby every night. I often say his life was taken, ours was destroyed.”

Though charged with murder, the four boys were actually said to be look outs for an IRA Active Service Unit, and were not accused of having pulled the trigger. Initially they spent nine weeks in Crumlin Road adult prison. According to Michael: “We were only 17 year old boys, we had just left St. Peter’s School. One day we’re leading a normal life, the next day we were in jail. Our lives were turned upside down. We were children thrown into an adult prison. We should never have been there.”

Gerry Kelly said: “I had never been outside of Derry. Even going to Belfast, nevermind to prison was crazy. Fear is the one word I would use to describe that journey. To be honest I was relieved when I got to prison as I’d seen enough TV to realise that if we had witnesses we’d be OK.”

The four had almost 200 witnesses corroborating their story. The Pat Finucane Centre have produced these witnesses to the Ombudsman’s Office.

Many of whom had gone to the police in the aftermath of the murder. Some reported their statements were torn up in front of them. Gerry said: “My father told me years later that every witness he convinced to go to the police was threatened with ‘Perverting the course of justice.’ Imagine!?”

The four became the first in the North to be charged with murder yet granted bail. “We turned up for trial on the first day but it was all confusing. That first night, when we got bail as the trial started, we all played football in Circular Road,” said Gerry.

“We were just naive children,” reflects Michael.

Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre, who has supported the complaint to the Ombudsman, said: “It was clear the system was looking at the nature of the charges compared to the evidence available. Everyone knew these boys hadn’t done it so they had to make them go away. It was easier on the system if they jumped bail. Everyone was complicit in allowing it to happen. No one would speak up.”

“The whole system was corrupt,” accuses Michael. “Once you were a Catholic you didn’t stand a chance. The whole legal system was corrupt.”

Thursday marks the 34th anniversary of Lt. Kirby’s death, Gerry Kelly, said: “Of course the date is significant. Personally we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, it has always been that way.” Michael added: “I’ve not bought a Valentine’s Card since 1979. It is a day when you like to stay in bed all day and not get up.

“Several years ago, I was in Derry on Valentine’s when suddenly I jumped in the car and drove home to Waterford. I didn’t think I could stay in the city on Valentine’s Day.”

The men characterise their treatment at the hands of the RUC as “brutalising” - but find it difficult to discuss what occurred in the interview suite. “For us to revisit that is too difficult,” explained Michael.

“It is all very hard and we can’t just bring it up,” said Gerry. “We would look up to the police for the answers to their questions. They would ask us where were you?’ I’d ask ‘where was I?’ and they would show me on the map.” Michael added: “We live with what happened every day since. Both the interrogations and having to live with a murder charge hanging over us.”

That charge affected their family lives. Mr. Kelly only informed his two children after they watched the movie ‘In the Name of The Father’ about Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four.

“I began crying and when they asked why, I said ‘That was me; that happened to me.’ I then sat them down and told them what happened.”

Father of three Michael, who now lives in Waterford, said: “I was a 17 year old child when this started I am now a 52 year old grand-father and still there is no end to it. It is ridiculous.”

After the intervention of solicitor Patricia Coyle and the PFC, the charges were dropped by the PPS in 2000 due to ‘the files no longer being available.’ Further insult was heaped on the men, as, when the murder charge was dropped by the PPS, police interviewed them about charges relating to their skipping bail. “That made me very, very angry,” said Gerry. “This was the first time I was able to speak up for myself. I was no longer a little teenager being bullied or beaten by police.” Asked about possible prosecutions arising from their mistreatment at the hands of the RUC, Michael said: “At the end of the day they are the ones who did wrong. They took four kids in, turned their lives upside down and then tried to walk away from it. Years later we’re still looking for answers. I live with this on my mind every day of the week. I need an end to it but I’ll never get over it. We need the public vindication.”

Gerry: “I don’t believe prosecutions will happen, I don’t care to see that happen. I think the report will bring it all to an end. We’ll be able to move on but we’ll never be able to replace what they took from us.”

Michael concluded by saying: “Four weeks after I went on the run my sister died but I couldn’t attend her funeral. I also missed the last years of my father’s life, he died in 1982 and my brother in 1986. Even today their graves mean nothing to me. I haven’t been able to cry. I don’t know how to do it.

“What the RUC took away from me is lost and gone forever.”

A spokesperson for the Ombudsman’s Office said: “A file has been sent to the PPS and we are awaiting their direction on the case.”