Father tried in vain to save son after loyalist attack

The last moments of Gavin Brett's young life could hardly have been more poignant; he lay on a pavement as his father used his paramedic skills in a frantic attempt to keep death at bay.

One moment Mr Brett was one of a group of teenagers messing around on a housing estate in suburban north Belfast on Sunday night. The next he was the latest victim of Northern Ireland's violent summer, gunned down in a drive-by shooting by loyalists who assumed he was a Catholic.

In fact, 18-year-old Mr Brett was a Protestant, the offspring of a mixed marriage, his parents living in a predominantly Catholic estate in the Glengormley area. His uncle Peter described him as "a loving boy who had a wonderful future ahead of him".

A Catholic friend, a promising footballer who played for a senior league team at the weekend, was hit in the ankles. His condition was described yesterday as stable.

The father of the fatally injured youth ran from his home and gave his son mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A nurse who was on the scene said: "There were British soldiers at the scene and they had the wee boy in the recovery position. The wee boy was badly injured.

"I searched for his pulse and I knew his life was slipping away – he was dying. A guy who I know as a paramedic arrived at the scene and began to try to resuscitate him, but we knew it was too late.

"I learnt a couple of hours later that the guy was his daddy. At the time I thought he was just here to do his job. When he realised that the boy had died, he said a prayer. The guy got upset. I thought that was just the sort of person he is. I didn't realise that it was his son."

Michael Brett, Mr Brett's father, is a Catholic and a paramedic specialist, one of a team taken by helicopter to the scene of the Omagh bombing in 1998.

Peter Brett said of his brother: "Michael has helped countless people throughout the many years of the Troubles, regardless of what religion they are, and now we're going to have to bury another one of our own children."

Yesterday afternoon Michael Brett and his wife walked the short distance from their home to the scene of their son's death, inspecting messages that had been left on a large number of floral tributes.

Responsibility for the killing was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover-name which is used by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. The claim was accompanied by a warning that their campaign would "increase in ferocity".

The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said that the attack had been carried out on "defenceless youngsters they would have assumed to be Catholics". He added: "It's as simple as that – these sort of people need only that excuse. That's the sort of animals we're talking about here. They represent the lowest form of so-called loyalist life."

He said that police were investigating the possibility of UDA involvement in the attack. A number of sources blamed the UDA for the incident, pointing out that the organisation is now regularly breaching its formal ceasefire with shootings and pipe-bombs.

Sir Ronnie said he believed that the UDA had been responsible for a recent gun attack carried out on a community centre in north Belfast.

Sinn Fein said it was obvious that the UDA ceasefire was over. After the shooting Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, said that he was prepared to meet the UDA if it would help to end the nightly violence affecting north Belfast and other areas. Mr Adams said: "Part of our focus would be to listen to what these people have to say and to see if they can justify what they have been involved in. Whether I or any of my friends and comrades could make any impact on UDA thinking is a matter of speculation, although we are prepared to try that."

Sunday night's killing was widely condemned. Gavin Brett's former headmaster, Robert Frost, described him as popular and liked by pupils and staff, and he condemned the incident as "absolutely crazy mindless savagery".

A teenage girl who knew the victim said: "He didn't deserve it. He was a lovely fellow, very talkative. He wasn't a harmful person. He was just very friendly."

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced last night that he would hold an urgent meeting with the Chief Constable and other security advisers to discuss the incident and the other recent violence. He said that those responsible must be, and would be, caught.

The Northern Ireland political parties are awaiting the release, probably tomorrow, of proposals drawn up by the British and Irish governments to rescue the peace process and restore devolved government.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We have said since Weston Park that it is not a question of further negotiation on it, but obviously it is detailed and there had to be a considerable amount of discussion between the two governments to make sure it was fine-tuned."

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