The Rosemary McCartney and Patrick O’Neill murders (Jeanne Griffin)
Friday 21 July 1972 was a day that Belfast will never forget; the sheer level of savagery the IRA unleashed on its populace by exploding 22 bombs throughout the city ensured that the dark day was henceforth referred to in the annals of the Troubles as “Bloody Friday”. Bombs went off one after the other in a series of loud thuds sending up clouds of smoke as terrified shoppers scurried for cover and the security forces frantically tried to follow the confused telephoned warnings. The resulting carnage was devastating and spread panic over Belfast as the attacks were not confined to the city centre but were also detonating in residential areas as well. Nine people were blown to pieces.
Bewilderment turned to outrage as graphic pictures showing firemen scraping up human remains were shown on television screens. Anger blazed through the loyalist community with some wishing to strike back hard against the Catholics from whence they believed the IRA had found succour. One of the four Ulsterbus employees that had been killed in the Oxford Street bus station had been a member of the UDA. Accordingly the Shankill UDA immediately set up an operation that would raise the body count up to another two just hours after the summer sun had set on that infamous day.
A young Catholic man, Patrick O’Neill (26) and his girlfriend Rosemary McCartney (27) were travelling in a taxi when they were stopped and questioned at a UDA roadblock. Upon discovering the couple’s religion they were taken to a room above a Shankill Road pub which had been converted into a UDA “Romper Room”. Masked members of the UDA were waiting inside and towels were placed over both their heads and the grilling began.
The interrogation was presided over by Davy Payne, a former British paratrooper and a UDA man with a fearsome reputation. Kevin Myers who was acquainted with him described Payne as “one of the most ferocious savages in the history of Irish terror”. In fact, he is credited with having invented the notorious UDA “romper rooms”. Rosemary McCartney of Iris Drive, West Belfast was facing this man and completely at his mercy. She was a popular folksinger enjoying considerable fame around the traditional music scene in Belfast. From a large, close-knit family, their lack of sectarianism was demonstrated by the fact that her brother Danny mainly had Protestant girlfriends whom he often brought to watch Rosemary perform. While Patrick was beaten and burnt with cigarettes, Rosemary was repeatedly questioned about an IRA man who lived in Iris Street. UDA leader Tommy Lyttle had been present at the “rompering” and he later recounted the details of that night.
As so often happened during Troubles atrocities there was an element of the grotesque. It was there in the Romper Room, a card was found in Rosemary’s bag identifying her as a singer. Fascinated, Payne asked her if she really was a singer. When she replied in the affirmative, he told her to prove it. She then asked him how she could prove it; he answered her sardonically “By singing”. The intimidated and trembling young woman was forced to sing before her UDA interrogators. When she had finished her song the masked men all clapped and voiced their appreciation. Music normally has the power to reach down deeply into a person’s soul and strum the chords of emotion, inspiring universal harmony. Payne and his comrades were unmoved. Perhaps their hatred of Catholics was too visceral or more likely the years of violence had corroded their humanity. Rosemary and Patrick had to die.
Lyttle claimed there were two reasons Davy Payne came to this decision. Firstly, she had not been able to provide any information on the IRA man in Irish Street, and secondly he had never shot a woman before. There had been a suggestion from the man guarding the door that they should rape Rosemary as it was a “shame to let a woman like her go to waste”. The others decided against it. After bundling the couple into a car several of the UDA men drove to a spot in the Glencairn estate where both Rosemary and Patrick were shot dead. Payne fired the first shot into Rosemary’s face, then another man fired the second shot and a third man the final one in the traditional Act of Conspiracy.
IRA reaction to the double murder was callous indifference. Former IRA Chief of Staff Daithi O’Connell coolly explained in an interview that Catholic victims of loyalist death squads served to increase recruitment to the IRA’s ranks and kept sectarian hatred perennially on the boil. Rosemary McCartney was the first woman executed by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland but tragically she was not the last. Others such as Jean McConville, Anne Ogilby, Mary Travers, Margaret Wright were to follow along with many more.