When Ivan Vennard was killed by the Provisional IRA in October 1973, it was the first of two grievous acts committed against both him and his family. His transgression was nothing more than to have been a former member of the UDR, who since leaving the regiment performed the repressive function that postmen are notorious for: delivering our mail. That the IRA lacked any enticement strategy for inducing UDR soldiers to quit the force was manifest in the numbers of former members shot dead by the guerrilla body.
The second grievous act had wider implications. Not only was the family of Ivan Vennard misled by the RUC and given a sense of closure that was false, a completely innocent man was subsequently convicted for the killing of Mr Vennard and would go on to serve 15 years of a life sentence. John McVeigh from Lurgan, while from a political family with strong republican connections, had no interest in politics himself. That perhaps made him a suitable proxy target for the RUC, more concerned with securing convictions than with catching perpetrators.
John McVeigh's involvement in the conflict made him as culpable as the average member of St Vincent de Paul. It amounted to nothing more sinister or subversive than moving and relocating Nationalist families who had been forced to leave their homes in the opening years of the North’s politically violent conflict. He helped rather than harmed people.
When I knew him in Cage 10 of Long Kesh where I spent a year with him in the 1970s, he was an anonymous sort of character, an outsider by virtue of our understanding that he was innocent. His existence was that of a lost soul in a crowd, an unenviable situation that seemed to affirm Sartre’s observation that hell is other people. There is an irony in that that because due to his having gone largely unnoticed in the prison – he wasn’t loud, he wasn’t obtrusive - his death didn’t register to the same extent as that of many other former prisoners. While the TPQ end of year obituaries are generally dedicated to those who died in the course of the year John McVeigh died in February of last year. But for a chance meeting with his brother, I would not have known John had died.
A single man who would later marry in prison, he was devoted to his mother Lucy. A mechanic and welder by trade he had in the 1970s sustained serious injuries in a car crash which led to him being treated as a psychiatric outpatient in St Luke’s, Armagh, for which he was prescribed heavy medication.
While undergoing this treatment the British Army hauled him from his home in the autumn of 1973 and handed him over to the tender mercies of the RUC who for three days denied the seriously distressed man any access to his medications, on which he had become wholly dependent to alleviate his post-accident trauma and depression.
It was cynical and tactical on the part of the RUC, an action which succeeded in its purpose of coercing a statement from John McVeigh. His guilt or innocence was irrelevant to a force whose attitude resembled the Saigon police of whom it was said had a motto: if they are innocent beat them until they become guilty. And beaten John was. His torturers applied their trade to his genitalia, causing him to later collapse in Crumlin Road jail, the result of heavy bleeding. It was a condition alleviated only through medical intervention.
In a statement the Provisional IRA exonerated John McVeigh of involvement in the death of Ivan Vennard. A prison governor told his brother, Peter, that he knew John was innocent but there was absolutely nothing he could do. None of it mattered. The appalling vista so abhorred by Lord Denning would not be allowed to rain on the parade of the powerful in the case of John McVeigh either. Both he and Ivan Vennard would continue to be denied justice.
Throughout his time in prison John underwent psychiatric evaluation, counselling and treatment. Constantly depressed he didn’t play sports or read books. Erwin James, the former life sentence prisoner and Guardian columnist in August this year penned a column Books Kept Me Alive In Prison. It doesn’t take much to imagine the life without them endured by John McVeigh. His life was one of tedium where a day seemed like a week. But for the solace he derived from making handicrafts, he may not have made it.
Fortunately he met his future wife Liz while serving out his life sentence. They married while he was in prison and remained happily together right up until his death. But life post-release was no easy ride. He was constantly subject to health problems. Trauma had him firmly in its grip.
A Belfast law firm is currently pursuing a case regarding the false conviction of John McVeigh. Not only does John’s own family deserve this but so too does the family of Ivan Vennard. Duplicitous and deceitful, the RUC has much to answer for in respect of both men.
John McVeigh, a victim of a police brutality and a compliant judiciary, so that the state could perpetrate and perpetuate a cruel hoax, will have his story told in a bid to obtain for him in death the just outcome he was denied in life.