By Jack Holland
On Sunday, Oct. 2, 1988, Malachy and Bernadette McAllister set out on their first vacation in years, leaving Bernadette’s mother, Anne Robinson, to take care of the family of four. At around 7:45 p.m., the baby, Sean, almost 1, began crying in an upstairs bedroom of the their home in Farnham Street, just off of the Lower Ormeau Road in South Belfast. Their granny asked Gary and his sister Nicola to run upstairs and check the baby. They left the living room where they had been watching television.
The fourth child in the family, Jaime, was off playing football.
Within seconds of the kids having left the room, Mrs. Robinson thought she heard an explosion. She got up and walked toward the front window. The barrel of an AK-47 came through the curtains. She ran for the kitchen as a burst of high-velocity bullets smashed into the room.
Upstairs, Gary, hearing the gunfire, came to the bedroom window. The gunmen saw him and directed their fire up through the living room ceiling.
About 25 shots were fired that October night, and just by good luck none managed to find a human target. The McAllister family fled to Canada in December 1988, eventually ending up in New Jersey, where since 1997 they have been fighting attempts to deport them. They have more reason than most refugees from the Northern Ireland conflict for not wanting to return to their native city.
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Belfast in 1988 was a dangerous city, and the Lower Ormeau was one of its flashpoints where murderous attacks were frequent and often fatal. It still is an area where a sectarian border divides communities of working-class Catholics and Protestants who coexist side by side in an uneasy relationship.
The attack on the McAllister family was part of that pattern as old as the Ulster conflict itself, but underlying it there was another, more sinister one, involving informers, betrayal, and intrigue in which an innocent family had become entrapped.
At the time of the shooting Malachy McAllister had been out of jail for three years. He had served just over three for a teenage offense. In 1981, he had become involved in an ambush of a police patrol. A constable had been slightly wounded. It had taken place during the emotional months of the hunger strikes, when many nationalist kids from his area were caught up in the street turmoil. He had been linked to the Irish National Liberation Army. But his role was peripheral, and his subsequent behavior showed he never at any time had been other than a hot-headed youth with no serious history of commitment to political violence. What made his case somewhat different from the others was that he ended up in jail because his brother Robert, also an INLA member, had named him in a series of statements which in February 1982 led to the arrests of dozens of INLA activists — the beginning of a process which would eventually throw the organization into disarray.
Robert "Rab" McAllister was in a different category from his brother. He was one of the INLA’s most active gunmen. Shortly before his arrest, he had taken part in the assassination of John McKeague, one of Northern Ireland’s more prominent loyalists — a flamboyant former follower of the Rev. Ian Paisley. He was virulently sectarian, the founder of a vicious loyalist gang known as the Red Hand Commandos which was responsible for a series of murders and pub bombings dating back to 1972.
Rab McAllister said that when arrested he confessed to the police about his role in the McKeague assassination as well as five other killings, but for some unknown reason, when the list of five murders was drawn up for which he was charged and finally convicted, McKeague’s was not one of them.
In fact, at the time he took part in the McKeague assassination, Rab McAllister was working as a police informer, a role he had been performing (under pressure, he said) since September 1981. He signed a statement to that effect when under arrest in 1982, hoping it would help him win a more lenient sentence.
Apparently, what neither he nor the INLA knew was that McKeague was also an informer, working for British army intelligence. A few days before McKeague was shot he had been questioned by police about what he knew of another, murky scandal, involving the Kincora Boy’s Home in East Belfast. At the home worked William McGrath, head of a loyalist paramilitary group called Tara. McGrath, like McKeague, had been a follower of Paisley. Both were pedophiles. McGrath was eventually convicted of raping the boys under his care. But other allegations swirled around Kincora, including one that it was used by British intelligence to gather information about the sex lives of leading Unionist politicians.
McKeague was suspected of using the premises for storing weapons for the Red Hand Comanndos.
There is no proof that when the INLA assassinated McKeague they had any inkling that he was an agent. Nor is there evidence that the killing was part of any broader conspiracy. But a few months after Malachy McAllister and his wife fled Belfast, the RUC came to their home to warn them that their lives were still in danger. A loyalist organization was gathering information about them. Two people had been arrested with the weapons used in the attack on their home, and information about the McAllisters. The organization involved was McKeague’s Red Hand Commandos.
Though supposedly on cease-fire, it is still active today, and its members are suspected of forming a surreptitious alliance with other extremist Protestant groups who are opposed to the current peace process and determined to wreck it through renewing sectarian violence.
And though Malachy McAllister played no role in any of this, the web of intrigue surrounding the death of the McKeague, British intelligence, the INLA and the Red Hand Commandos, has threatened his family once and he fears that it has the potential to do so again.