Assassination of an innocent

The murder of Sean Brown has dumbfounded fellow villagers because he was a byword for non-sectarian generosity to all, writes Paul Vallely in Bellaghy, County Derry

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"Why they might as well have shot you ... " said Sam Overend in shocked bewilderment " ... or me." They had shot the man who lived next door and left his body by his burning car. It was yet another sectarian killing, the third in Northern Ireland in a week.

The murder of Sean Brown provoked slightly more than the usual perfunctory few paragraphs in the papers, merely because it had happened in the village where the poet Seamus Heaney had grown up, and the Nobel laureate had written to a local paper proclaiming that his death was shocking and sinister. "I have known two generations of the Brown family," he wrote. "They are people of great probity, much respected in the Bellaghy district."

They would not have shot Sam. For the 71-year-old is a Protestant. And when it comes to the twisted criteria by which Loyalist gunmen select their targets, one thing alone is requisite: that the victim must be a Catholic.

Making my way to the scene a week after the outrage, I found it hard to shake off a sense of the mundanity of the evil. I had been given directions to turn off by the T-Junction transport caff and carry on past SDC Trailers. They were directions the killers must have taken too. The hawthorn was in bloom and the hedgerows were enlivened with bursts of yellow gorse and tall white heads of cow parsley. Swallows swooped across the vibrant green fields. It seemed a world away from the burglars, muggers and rapists whose spectres haunt life in the inner city. No need to lock your car here, I was told when I arrived at the football clubhouse on the edge of the little village. Yet this was the place at which Sean Brown was abducted before his face and part of his head was blown away.

The grieving reminiscences of his friends and relatives seesaw between past and present tenses, as if to search for a clue in the life of Sean Brown to unlock the mystery of his death. They talk of his birth 61 years ago in a labourer's bungalow, two miles outside the village where his father worked at the local clay factory. They look back to the boy who lifted potatoes for the local farmer in the spring, went to the Moss to cut turf in the summer and picked blackberries as the autumn approached to get the money to buy new shoes for school. It is a jumble of memories. His cousin Tom Scullion recalled playing football in bare feet with a rag ball. His brother Seamus, returned from 33 years in Australia, remembered the plays Sean would write for his three brothers to perform in the barn on winter evenings by the light of an oil lamp. Later there were long teenage bike rides to distant dances in the company of Protestant friends. "It was before the Troubles and we were all just poor people together then," says one relative.

"We used to walk together to the village school," says Seamus. "He was always the one to stop fights, and stopped me going with the others to pinch apples from the orchard. He was the eldest, and had a sense of responsibility. He was determined to do well; he always did his homework straight away, where I always had to be called in from the fields. There weren't too many Catholics got into grammar school; Sean was bright enough but the family couldn't afford it. So he went to Magherafelt Technical College for two years. He was no good at woodwork - he almost took his fingers off with a plane; at metalwork he found a talent and decided he wanted to be an engineer."

But engineering was then a Protestant job so, at 16, Sean started work bottling milk in a dairy farm. Yet his ambition remained and for the next four years, after work, he went to night school, where he met his future wife, Bridie, and obtained sufficient qualifications to land a job in a firm which made destination indicators for buses, after which came a decade making ejector seats for aircraft before discovering his true vocation and spending the next 30 years teaching young engineering apprentices. "He was born to teach," recalls Albert McClelland, who taught welding alongside Sean for 18 years. "He just seemed to have a way with kids. One of his apprentices recently won the Northern Ireland Skills Competition. Sean was so proud he hugged him fit to break."

But the passion of Sean Brown's life was Bellaghy's Gaelic Athletic Association football club. And it was almost certainly that which brought about his violent end. "As a footballer he was a good administrator," says his cousin Tom as cryptically as befits the local schoolmaster. "He was completely unco-ordinated, though he had great stamina and strength. But he became assistant treasurer as soon as he came of age. The place was pounds 140,000 in debt when he took over and he got it in the black." He also raised the money to build a massive new clubhouse, large sports hall, new stand, and most recently had the entire pitch relaid.

Sean, a jovial character with a great laugh, was, as Tom put it with masterly Irish paradox, "a loud but quiet man"; he had a big voice but a gentle personality. Taking over four years ago as chairman, he took it upon himself to be barman, quizmaster, toilet cleaner and commentator at the club's dog show. He also organised the club's Irish dancing and traditional music classes.

To his killers this was enough. The GAA club was a badge of nationalism. They were wrong, according to Sean Brown's other next-door-neighbour, Robin Smyth, who is also a Protestant. "Sean wouldn't have had it that way. To him it was just the centre of the local community." Protestants were invited to many events there, insists Sam Overend, who went along. "When we made a presentation to Seamus Heaney, when he got the Nobel Prize, Sean was very careful it should be a cross-community event," says the club's secretary, Seamus Boorman.

There was no doubt that Sean Brown located much of his identity in his Catholicism. "He was a great church person," says his workmate Albert, who is himself a Protestant. He was a reader in church, a collector for the parish development fund and a fund-raiser for the Catholic grammar school at Magherafelt. "But he never allowed religion to come between him and other people."

He created no boundaries between his church work and other voluntary work. He was also the local rep for a regional credit union. "He drew in lots of the younger lads who were keen on buying cars," recalls Tom Scullion. "He would advise them on saving and borrowing strategies. He saw it as part of keeping them on the straight and narrow." He told Sam Overend that he believed one of the key purposes of encouraging Gaelic football was to keep "a lot of young fellows off the street - if they were playing football they weren't getting into any bother, he'd say". He often went beyond the call of his duties in trying to get jobs with local firms for his ex-pupils and, says Albert McClelland, "he made no distinction between Protestant and Catholic".

Seamus Heaney said the same thing more eloquently when he wrote that Sean Brown "represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word 'reconciliation', because that word has become a policy word - official and public".

Sean Brown was just an immensely generous man, his neighbours say, always making spare parts for people's cars, sharpening their shears and lawnmowers, visiting people who were sick and old folk whom others didn't bother with. "I don't know how he had time to fit it all in," says Seamus Boorman - not to mention the long walks he went on with his wife, and cycling which included 43-mile circuits of the local loch, and annually taking part in the ecumenical bike marathon from Belfast to Dublin. "He was a fit man," says his cousin Tom. "They can't have found it easy to get him into that car."

He refers to Sean's assassins, who lay in wait on Monday evening last week as he locked the club gates after a committee meeting. He was an easy target. No one is quite sure what happened. An empty cartridge was found at the scene, along with signs of a scuffle. Yet no one in the village heard a shot. His body was found 10 miles away, near Randalstown, beside his burnt-out Sierra. He had been shot several times so that his eyes were blown out of his face.

"Nobody who knew Sean Brown could have done that to him," says Robin Smyth, fiercely hoping that if the deed was done by his co-religionists they were people from far off. "I just wish," says Albert the welder, sitting sunken at his work-bench, "that I had had a phone call to say he had died of a heart attack."

The dead man's head was covered with a white cloth as he was laid out for the village to troop past the coffin. He wore his club tie and in his lapel was the badge which showed he had remained a Pioneer - true to a youthful pledge never to touch alcohol throughout his life. "He was never censorious," says Sam Overend. "As I came home unsteadily down the street on the odd occasion, Sean would just laugh. He ran the bar at the club and just drank fizzy orange himself. His philosophy was that everyone should be allowed to do his own thing."

At the funeral a wounded little poem, written by Robin Smyth's 12-year- old daughter, Fiona, was read. It conveyed the sense of bewilderment shared by the whole village. Adults express it differently, talking among themselves, repeatedly rehearsing the events of that numbing evening and making wild guesses at the motivation of the killers. Was his body taken to Randalstown to show that the murder was a tit-for-tat response to the IRA's murder of a policeman who was being buried in the town that day? Or was Bellaghy selected because it had been the scene of two press conferences by the area's MP, Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, who ousted the extreme Protestant incumbent, the Rev Willie McCrea, who had earlier appeared on a public platform with one of the province's most notorious killers, Billy Wright?

It is fruitless speculation, says Tom Scullion, and in the end "there's more hurt than anger; people can't think past the hurt, the loss, the emptiness". At the club gates, withering bunches of flowers and candles burning in blue glass jars say the same thing. All the people of Bellaghy can now do is, in the words of one scribbled epitaph, "pay respects to a true gentleman, good, honest and decent, who will never be forgotten by his community".

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