IRA victim attacks definition of killings as political acts: David McKittrick reports on a letter that provides a glimpse of the lasting pain and grief suffered by thousands of bereaved families in Northern Ireland

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THE Dublin-based Irish Times carried an unprecedented letter from a Belfast resident magistrate on Friday. It was addressed to the editor, but in effect was directed at the Republic's entire legal and political establishment.

It questioned the outcome of a recent case in which an alleged republican successfully appealed to the Dublin High Court against extradition to Britain for the murder of a soldier.

The magistrate, Tom Travers, argued that the Irish constitution helped to prevent extraditions from the South on the grounds that killings carried out by republicans were political acts, committed under the guise of upholding the

constitution's claim to Northern Ireland.

He went further, contending that the 'allegedly Christian' Republic's legal and political ethos tended to excuse murder. Mr Travers, a Catholic, wrote: 'In 1979, I went to Drogheda with my wife and two daughters to see the Holy Father. There we heard him say: 'Murder is murder and never let it be called by any other name.' We took comfort from his words.

'The great and the good of church, politics and the law murmured their approval. In this some were hypocritical because, as

future events were to show, they must, when they heard the Holy Father's words, have had mental reservations.

'These people, suffering from an obsession with the 'constitutional imperative of reintegration of the national territory', must in reality have believed that murder could be called by another name.'

It is practically unheard-of for a figure such as Mr Travers, a full- time serving magistrate, publicly to express views, especially such controversial views, on the legal and political affairs of another state. A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Court Service said it had no comment on the matter.

The letter was clearly written in a personal capacity: Mr Travers did not mention in it that he was a magistrate. But he did dwell on his own experience of violence. A decade ago, he was on his way home from Mass with his wife, Joan, and daughter Mary, a 22-year-old teacher, when they were confronted by two armed attackers. He survived, but his daughter died.

He wrote: 'Ten years ago, on 8 April 1984, my dear darling daughter, Mary, was murdered as she walked home from Mass with her mum and me. Mary's murder was carried out by members of an evil and brutal criminal organisation. Some of her killers were members of the murder machine, self-named Provisional IRA. At least one was a member of political Sinn Fein. Mary died, as she lived, gentle and full of grace, sweetness and love, and is now with God. May I say that on the day my lovely daughter was murdered her killer tried to murder my darling wife also.

'At that time Mary lay dying on her mum's breast, her gentle heart pouring its pure blood on to a dusty street in Belfast. The murderer's gun, which was pointed at my wife's head, misfired twice. Another gunman shot me six times. As he prepared to fire the first shot I saw the look of hatred on his face, a face I will never forget.'

The letter went on: 'While your constitution and laws may constrain your judiciary to hold that the killer was carrying out a political act, I can assure them that the hatred on that face came from the depths of Hell itself.

'No doubt the constitution and laws of the allegedly Christian Republic would prevent the extradition of Mary's murderer, if he were found within its boundaries. Murder would not then be called murder but would be called by another name. Mary's killers are regarded

as patriots; some even call them politicians.'

Two years later Mr Travers lived through a public ordeal at the trial of a man and a woman charged with his daughter's murder. He broke down in the witness box. Hardened reporters said at the time that it was the most upsetting courtroom spectacle they had witnessed.

The male defendant, who Mr Travers identified as his daughter's killer, walked free after the judge said there was a possibility the magistrate could have been mistaken. The woman, who was 19 at the time of the killing, was jailed for life.

Mr Travers returned to the bench in 1986. On Friday, he did not wish to elaborate on his letter, the words of which convey something of the intensity of his feelings of grief and loss.

(Photograph omitted)