Death of a taxi driver

Inside Story: Northern Ireland; Michael McGoldrick was a Catholic in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jojo Moyes reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was shortly after midnight when Michael McGoldrick answered his last call. It was to pick up a pounds 4 fare from Centrepoint, a tenpin bowling and cinema complex in Lurgan. Name of Lavery - common enough - going to Aghagallon.

It had been a quiet Sunday night for the half-dozen drivers on duty at Minicabs' Taxis. Michael, as ever, had just got off the phone to his wife, Sadie. She was expecting their second child in three months and he liked to "check in" to make sure that she and seven-year-old Emma were OK.

He had also been telling one of the other drivers about his application for a temporary teaching job at Lurgan Tech. He had just graduated in politics and English from Queen's University and was hoping to hear within a few days. "If I get it I'll be out of here," he said. Out, that is, of the taxi firm where he had worked part-time to finance his studies. Everyone knew he wanted to spend more time with his family.

The radio controller tried him at about 12.45. When he got no response, he assumed McGoldrick had clocked off - "to go back to Sadie - they were a real pair of lovebirds, y'know".

Seven hours later McGoldrick's body, slumped over the wheel of his taxi, was found on Montiaghs Road by a man out hunting rabbits. He had been shot twice in the head.

"It was only afterwards I thought about that name Lavery," said one driver. "That was the name they gave when they killed Martin Byrne."

MICHAEL John McGoldrick was born in Glasgow on 18 June 1965, the only child of Northern Irish parents Bridie and Mick. A tall, gentle man, he worked as a psychiatric nurse until injuring his back and turning to driving. He met Sadie, now 29, a red-headed nurse also from Northern Ireland, at a dance in Scotland and they married in 1987. Emma was born within two years.

The family returned to Lurgan, soon followed by Bridie and Mick, and were quickly assimilated into the community around their home at Ashgrove Crescent, down by the railway. (Michael, however, retained his passion for Celtic football club.) Devoted to his family and slow to anger, he was also, colleagues say, "a straight-up-and-down man. He'd give it to you straight."

They still laugh about his passion for pub quizzes; a reflection of the thirst for knowledge that led him to his degree. Lecturers at Queen's describe him as a "dedicated" mature student, and his presentation on punk music, complete with ghetto-blaster, is still remembered with a smile.

But his real passion was Sadie; they all say it. She and his proud parents are said to be heartbroken. They issued a statement blaming politicians for their "fire and brimstone" speeches over the Drumcree stand-off. Ian Paisley, perhaps predictably, has denied any link between the stand-off and McGoldrick's murder.

In fact, no one has officially claimed responsibility for McGoldrick's death, but the drivers say they know who did it, "as do the police". It doesn't do, in the streets of Lurgan, to be seen as a "talker", but in private locals will tell you that the chief suspect is a militant and maverick commander in the Ulster Volunteer Force known as King Rat.

The man, whom the central UVF leadership is said to have long had difficulty controlling, was described by one Ulster Defence Association source as "just waiting for an excuse, and Drumcree provided it". The actions of King Rat, who has been blamed for several murders in the area, are believed by many to signal an unofficial end to the loyalist ceasefire.

Nationalists believe the RUC is refusing to say the killing is sectarian because it would heighten tensions. They complain that the RUC would not attribute a sectarian motive to two other killings in recent weeks: those of a tennis player, Gareth Parker, in North Belfast, and a bank clerk, Niall Donovan, in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, both of whom were Catholics. Drivers murmur the name of Martin Byrne, a Catholic father of two shot dead at the wheel of his taxi in January 1990 after answering a call, a killing ascribed to the UVF under the name the Protestant Action Force. The RUC, meanwhile, says it is keeping "an open mind at this stage about any motive".

Lurgan, while mourning McGoldrick's loss, is not too surprised. The Armagh town, 25 miles from Belfast, with its 60:40 Protestant-Catholic mix, has witnessed 200 years of sectarian violence. For 51 weeks of the year, one old lady said, everyone got on just fine. Then the marches stirred it all up again.

Last week roads to and from the town were persistently blocked by felled trees and burning cars. And in the silence outside St Peter's Church in North Street, while McGoldrick's funeral was taking place, it was just possible to hear the army helicopters monitoring the Orange march at Garvaghy Road, which after five days of stand-off, was given that same hour to go ahead.

THE dark-green shutters of Minicabs' Taxis, just up the road, were down last week, decorated with a few sad-looking bouquets. On the day of the funeral, the seven other taxi firms in the small market town also closed. "It's a mark of respect," said one driver. "Michael was a good man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been any one of us."

With its lack of public transport, Lurgan relies on its thriving taxi trade. But Minicabs' Taxis, one of the oldest Catholic taxi firms in the province, may not open again. The drivers, who had at last begun to relax during the ceasefire, are once again filled with bitterness and fear.

One described his anger at the return of what he called "Dial-a-Catholic". "It's the surest way of making sure they get one, isn't it?" he said. "They know where to find us. We're back where we started."

Another described being a taxi driver as "like hanging off a cliff by your thumbnails. If you carry a weapon the police will do you, if you don't, the others will have you and take your car off you." He said that after nine years of driving, he was giving up. He didn't know what he would do, join the others on the dole probably. Unemployment in the town was already bad and likely to get worse because the latest trouble would scare off all the potential investors. "But it's not worth a life, is it?" he said.

As the funeral cortege pulled off, his car radio told of the erupting clashes in the Garvaghy Road and he expressed surprise that a London newspaper had sent anyone to find out about the life of Michael McGoldrick. "What do you guys care? It's just another Northern Ireland killing to you lot over there, isn't it?" he said. "Just another dead taxi driver."