Thursday, March 23

‘A freeze frame death in front of the world’: the police killing of Sean Downes at the height of the Troubles | Northern Ireland

It is the photograph that is lodged in my memory, never to be erased, no matter how many years go by. It is in black and white. grainy. In the foreground, there are the heads of a dozen or so people, crouching but looking upwards. At the top of the picture are three armored police Land Rovers with grilles across their windscreens.

The middle of the picture is the focal point. A police officer, a burly figure padded out with a flak jacket, helmet on, visor up, stands side on, right arm nearest us, right index finger on the trigger of his 2ft-long gun, the stock wedged into his shoulder from him . His left arm is extended to a grip at the end of the barrel. There is another policeman in the center. But the figure you are drawn to is on the right, a man in his early 20s, black tousled hair and a mustache, about two meters away from the end of the gun. In his right hand, he seems to be carrying a thin stick. He is leaning forward, as if suddenly stopping, left hand going to his chest from him, to his heart from him.

Sunday 12 August 1984: the moment that Sean Downes was killed on the Falls Road, a freeze-frame death in front of journalists and TV crews from around the world. It was a sunny Sunday. But there wasn’t any jollity in the air that day. There was a provocation to the government and the security forces. And the likelihood was that the provocation would mean confrontation. The two-mile march – including women and children, many young – to the rally site, was flanked by police and army vehicles all the way. Along the route the occasional missile was flung at the police. Every side street sealed off. Helicopters hovered low overhead.

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Many of the crowd sat in the road to listen to speeches from a raised podium set up outside Sinn Féin headquarters. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, was there. But this time the security forces were not interested in him. It was the man to his left, clutching the microphone, that they wanted: Martin Galvin, the 34-year-old director of Noraid – a US-based group that raised funds for the Irish republicans – whose day job was, improbably, working as a lawyer in New York City’s sanitation department, and who was the subject of an order banning him from the UK.

It was the moment Galvin picked up the microphone and moved to address the gathering and the TV cameras that the police moved in. Dozens of them charged into the crowd to try to carve a way through to their target.

A nearby photographer was hit with a baton as he waved his press card aloft. The shouting and screaming was instant, and then there were the cracks of plastic bullets being fired. Behind me, a man, blood pouring from a head wound, was being dragged into a front garden – a couple of youths smashed the door of a house to get him inside.

Another journalist and I saw a low-slung pram abandoned in the middle of the chaos. We barged our way through and maneuvered it to the side of a low wall, out of the way. Relieved, we looked inside. It was empty. Another man was unconscious to our left, with people trying to drag him out. Just a few meters away, there was a glimpse of the young man with the stick, running towards police and then a crack.

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A plastic bullet is a solid, PVC cylinder, 10cm long and 3.8cm in diameter. It has an operational range of between 33 and 66 meters. At 45 meters its impact is in the severe-damage category – meaning skull fractures, ruptures of kidney, or heart and haemorrhages. The rules said it should not be fired from less than a 20-meter range and aimed below the waist. The rules didn’t mean much that day.

The cortege takes Sean Downes’s body to be buried. Photograph: Alain Nogues/Sygma/Getty Images

Galvin escaped through the houses and back gardens of the Falls Road. His object was provocation and publicity. On those terms, it was a grim success. One person was dead, four seriously injured and 20 people hurt.

The remarkable photograph, by Alan Lewis of the Daily Mail, was published the next day, so it was all the more puzzling that, at a hastily called press conference, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) chief constable, the pugnacious Sir John Hermon, didn’t seem to have seen it or heard about it. If he had, he surely would not have claimed – during what became an ill-tempered event – ​​that his officers had fired into the air, not at any targets in the crowd; that the reporting was hyperbolic; and that force was only used because a riot had broken out. That angry, reflex version didn’t hold for long in the face of the evidence. But it was quickly replaced by another, this time from another senior RUC officer, who explained that the bullet had ricocheted off a wall and then hit Sean Downes.

Media bias is not a new theme. Coverage was slanted, said Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party. And the BBC was particularly to blame. Unionists won recall of the Northern Ireland assembly in order to vent anger at the reporting. In London, some took an opposing view: Shirley Williams, of the Social Democratic party, called it Belfast’s Peterloo; David Steel, the leader of the Liberal party, called it a police riot.

Eight months later, in April 1985, Constable Nigel Hegarty, 27, appeared at a Belfast court charged with unlawful killing. It emerged that in a statement made on the day, he said he had fired from a distance of 20 to 25 yards (18-23 meters). At Hegarty’s trial, it emerged that Downes had been convicted, as a 16-year-old, of membership of the junior IRA and possession of a weapon. Mr Justice Hutton said he believed Hegarty when he said he thought that his life and those of his colleagues were in danger. He took into account “the stress of the moment and the obvious determination of the deceased”. Hegarty was acquitted.

Downes’s funeral took place three days after he was killed; an estimated 5,000 people joined the cortege to the vast Milltown cemetery. In the crowd were Adams, with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and Danny Morrison. It was only when the shiny nameplate on the side of the coffin was visible that it became clear that the victim’s name was not Sean but John, and that was how he was known to his family.

John Downes left a widow, Brenda, aged 20. She had been at the rally but had gone home, with their 18-month-old daughter, Claire, when trouble broke out. She tried to get the court’s decision overturned and believed her solicitor was making progress. At one point Brenda went to Australia, but she returned to Belfast, immersing herself in the Irish Palestine support campaign, women’s causes and the support group Relatives for Justice. Her solicitor was Pat Finucane. He was shot dead by the Ulster Defense Association, with security forces collusion, in 1989.

Sean Downes' coffin is carried.
Sean Downes’s coffin is carried. Photograph: Alain Nogues/Sygma/Getty Images

The reverberations of the killing last to today. In March 2021, the Council of Europe said it would open a review after the British government refused to order a public inquiry. Nigel Hegarty returned to service in the RUC. Mr Justice Hutton became Lord Hutton. His name, address and car registration appeared on an IRA list discovered by the RUC. I have moved his family to Scotland. Years later, in 2004, he chaired the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of the Iraq-weapons expert David Kelly. Hutton acquitted the prime minister, Tony Blair, reserving his criticism of him for the BBC.

Hermon retired as chief constable in 1989. In 1997 he published his autobiography, Holding the Line. Galvin tried to repeat his appearance that 1984 day in 1989, but was arrested and deported to the US. He went on to oppose the peace process and Sinn Féin’s role in it.

The day after Downes’s funeral, I went to Donaghadee, a small seaside town, bedecked in red, white and blue bunting and union flags, for another funeral. Sgt Billy McDonald, 29, was the 200th member of the RUC to be killed in the Troubles. He was attending a lecture as part of his criminology studies at Ulster University when a bomb planted in a wall cavity was detonated. He had hung on to life for nine months, recovering consciousness only once, dying just hours after Downes was shot dead. Inside the church, the congregation sang The Lord’s My Shepherd as another congregation had done the day before when saying goodbye to John Downes.

Paul Johnson is the former deputy editor of the Guardian. He was Ireland correspondent from 1984 to 1986. This is an edited extract from Reporting the Troubles 2: More Journalists Tell Their Stories of the Northern Ireland Conflict, published by Blackstaff Press (£16.99). To support the Guardian, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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