Eileen Doherty was killed 40 years ago today. She was 19 and had no political affiliation. Just a nationalist teenager who had spent the evening with her boyfriend in the Lower Ormeau Road as she often did. Shortly before her death she called at Atlas Taxis at the corner of Cooke Street and the Ormeau Road. Her intention was to catch a cab home to Slieveban Drive in Andersonstown.
She was already there by the time I hobbled into the same depot on crutches. If Ronnie or some of the other drivers was on call, and had a one-passenger fare, they would take one of the local youth with them for the spin and a yarn. I got to so many parts of Belfast I would never have ventured into on foot courtesy of Ronnie. He was a Protestant but we had no reason to fear him. No matter where we happened to be he would pick us up if we called the depot and asked for him.
The night before, filled with cider, I had kicked a glass door in and damaged my Achilles tendon. For a year or two it continued to give me trouble. Unable to put my foot on the ground I had to get around with crutches. Eileen was not there alone. Two men, a few years older than myself, were seated seemingly waiting on a taxi. One at least appeared to be drunk, hunched over with face in his hands, only looking up occasionally. The other sat there but made no attempt to conceal his features. I assumed they had been on the drink in the local Sticky club and were, like Eileen, trying to make their way home on a Sunday evening. There were no taxis available and I spent about half an hour there talking with Eileen. She was of slim build and we would wind her up by calling her ‘Skin.’ We were about three years younger than she and would banter with her any time we met up. She was a frequent visitor to the road so we all knew her. I was a friend of her fiance.
I left before John Sherry arrived to pick up at the depot. He was the boss of the place and wasn’t as friendly towards the local youth as his drivers. It was just his way. I bade Eileen goodbye and thought no more of it. The following morning I lay on in bed, leg too damaged to allow me to go to my work as an apprentice terrazzo layer. When I got up my mother told me that a girl had been shot dead the night before. I didn’t immediately pick up on the name but as it dawned on me I recall hobbling out of the house which faced the depot.
As the day progressed we managed to piece the event together. Driving along the Ormeau embankment, John Sherry was confronted by one of the passengers holding a gun. It is said he rammed a traffic isle and pushed Eileen out the passenger door while managing to get himself out the driver side. As they made their way on foot to safety they saw the hijacked taxi come back round. Both ran but Eileen tripped. Her killers were onto her within seconds, her life blotted out in a second of sectarian hatred.
Monday afternooon saw me standing at the junction of McClure Street and the Ormeau Road with friends in a state of gloom and anger. A man approached and showed his ID card telling me he was a detective. I think his name was Tommy Meake. He said he was investigating the killing and asked us had we heard anything or noticed anything suspicious while his colleague talked to others on the other side of McClure Street. I and another teenager told them we had been in the depot with Eileen and the men who would shortly take her life. The cop seemed stunned, as if he had hit the bulls eye on his first throw. Within minutes we were in a police car and taken to Castlereagh and then onto Knock. We told them what we had seen and answered any questions they asked us. They seemed grateful.
I attended the wake for the coffin, which had been closed to viewing, leaving the house to make the short journey to St Agnes chapel. We called to the White Fort just after it. It was my first time in it. 16 year olds could get into bars easily enough then. The following day I attended the funeral but due to the injury I was carrying I was unable to take a lift of the coffin. The sunshine of the day could not contain the darkness.
Months before her first anniversary I found myself in jail. When released I would, with Eileen's friend Peggy, call on Sundays and see her parents and spend hours talking to her mother. A bright light had gone out in that house. I ended up jailed again and lost contact. By chance I met up with Eileen’s mother again in 2004 at a memorial mass for an 19 year old IRA volunteer who had been killed by the IRA for reasons known only to some of the more malign minds in the organisation. Their whispering that he was an informer grew weaker over the years until the tipping point was reached and the IRA had to admit that he was no such thing. Eileen’s mother was there, having shared the same horrible experience of seeing 19 years of love and nurturing obliterated in a second of political violence.
This year Bobby Rodgers, a loyalist previously sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a man because he was a Catholic was convicted of the killing of Eileen Doherty. He again received a mandatory life sentence. He will serve two years courtesy of the Good Friday Agreement. Two years for taking the life of Eileen Doherty seems so gratuitously offensive. Her life was priceless and no amount of prison time could ever compensate for it being robbed from her.
When I first learned that a man had been charged with killing Eileen my body quivered with emotion. Yet in spite of my strong memories of her death I don’t believe the conviction of Bobby Rodgers serves any real purpose. The trial judge said Rodgers did not pull the trigger which means all we really know is that at some point he was in the car. There are similarities here with the case of Brian Shivers who had his double murder conviction quashed as the appeal court held that if he was part of an operation after the fact but did not know what the operation entailed he could not be guilty of murder.
Eileen’s family has taken some solace from the conviction. But it seems to me that what it has been given is a formal verdict in a Diplock court which has bypassed trial by jury. Rodgers has denied the charge, and trust in the findings of a Diplock Court would not be reassuring. In real time the sentence, limited by political necessity, will not salve the family's grief. If ever Kipling's phrase East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet was applicable outside of the context in which he wrote it, it is to the gap between what is considered politically necessary and what is just.
We do not know why Eileen was targeted specifically nor what the decision making process was. Nobody has volunteered to tell us and it is unlikely that anybody ever will. We will not be told who stood over a terrified teenager and fired bullets into her head or why, what they thought they were doing as they travelled in the car with a 19 year old on a destination with death planned and ultimately implemented by them. We don’t know if the security forces played a hand. The UFF which claimed the killing said that Eileen was in the guard of honour at the funeral of IRA volunteer Jim Bryson who had died a week before her. It was untrue but did somebody feed that information to the UDA? Probably not, the killing seems to have been purely random, but we can never be sure. We will never know where the weapons came from.
The people who can most likely answer those questions with authenticity, and provide leads where they can’t provide answers for the family, are the men who were in that depot on that night and who took Eileen on the last journey of her short life. Prosecutions are never going to bring that knowledge forward. The very threat of them helps ensure that such knowledge remains hidden. This is probably why the threat is used. We know it is not in the slightest related to justice. The HET demonstrated that much. The British state security services need to ensure that they control the narrative of the past, what comes out and what stays hidden. They want to ensure that anybody thinking of revealing the dirty secrets of the state knows they will face prosecution.
A non-prosecutorial method of truth recovery is needed more than ever. It will be imperfect but nevertheless an improvement on the truth thwarting process of prosecution that currently serves to stifle rather than vent. Many secrets are buried away forever and time is running out for those that are accessible but soon too will sink beyond hope of retrieval.