The leader of Portsmouth City Council in the 1990s has just received a police report which has re-examined the murder of his father 34 years ago. But does it bring closure for the family? Chris Owen reports.
Leo Madden was babysitting when the phone rang.
His wife was out minding a friend’s child and Leo was looking after their newly-born fourth of what would turn out to be six children.
It was Friday, April 25, 1980, and the Madden family had been installed in their North End Avenue, Portsmouth, home for three years.
When he picked up the phone he had no idea that what he was about to be told would have ramifications for the next 34 years and affect his life forever.
It was the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland). The message was stark but to the point: Leo’s 68-year-old father Michael had been murdered on the back doorstep of his Belfast council house.
In the days that followed it emerged that at 6.45pm that evening probably two young men were responsible for pumping six bullets into his head, chest, abdomen and left arm.
Michael, like his son Leo who would go on to become the Labour leader of Portsmouth City Council, was a Catholic.
One hour and 35 minutes after Michael was murdered, the Provisional IRA issued a message to the media from its Belfast press centre saying it had killed him.
They alleged Michael was an informant who had given the RUC information about the death earlier that month of 24-year-old RUC Constable William Magill.
Now, 34 years on, the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET), has just published a report into Michael’s death as part of its remit to investigate the 3,269 unsolved murders committed during the Troubles between 1968 and 1998.
‘The Troubles,’ Leo, 66, laughs sardonically: ‘All those deaths and the best word we in Northern Ireland could ever come up with is Troubles.’
And the report’s conclusion? No new lines of inquiry have emerged and the killers will never be known.
‘I was very supportive of the HET’s investigation,’ says Leo. ‘I really hoped it might throw new light on my father’s murder and perhaps lead to identifying those who killed him.
‘The team was set up in the hope that it would bring closure for families who didn’t know how or why their loved ones died and I hope many have.
‘But I’m not surprised by the conclusions of the investigation into my father’s death. I still haven’t got what is called closure, but I’m not bitter, not after all these years.’
The organisation that ordered Michael’s cold-blooded killing is not in doubt, but the motive remains a mystery.
One thing the report did reveal to Leo is that his father, who was born in Rochdale, Lancashire, had served with the Lancashire Regiment in the Second World War.
‘I never knew that,’ adds Leo. ‘We knew he served, but he never spoke about it.’
Leo’s late mother was from Newry, Northern Ireland, but she met his father in Lancashire where she had gone to work. When they married, in 1946, when she was 18 and he was 36, they set up home back in Newry.
‘My dad had two jobs. In the day he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture. In the evenings he worked on the telephone exchange. You can see why he got the job – it was because of his English accent.’
Leo’s mother died when he was 18 and his father moved the family to Lenadoon Avenue, Belfast, on an almost exclusively nationalist Catholic estate.
Leo adds: ‘There’s no doubt about it that when me and my two sisters left home, he became reclusive. He was certainly eccentric, but he was not a member of any political organisation and he went to mass every day.’
The HET report makes frequent mention of his ‘difficult relationship with his neighbours’ and that he made regular complaints to the police at the police station about the behaviour of his neighbours’ children.
His letterbox was boarded up suggesting ‘unwelcome articles’ had been posted through the door and a pane of glass had been shattered in his front door.
Leo says: ‘He made no secret of his frequent visits to the police station to complain about his neighbours. He went during the day and would have been spotted.
‘He also chatted to soldiers on the street. He had something in common with them having served with the Lancashire Regiment. He would have been seen. And, of course, he had an English accent.’
And then there was a green Mazda estate, a car which the police believed was used in the killing of Constable Magill and which had been parked in the Lenadoon Avenue area. The report says Michael would have been questioned about it along with many other residents as part of house-to-house inquiries.
‘All of this makes me think the IRA thought my father was an informant,’ adds Leo.
‘But there’s another mystery: why would a man who is a recluse, who doesn’t like his neighbours and has boarded up his letterbox, simply open his back door on that night?
‘I wonder if those who knocked used a code which my father would have thought was from people he trusted. He wouldn’t have opened it to just anyone.
‘It was a bright evening. He went to the back door, opened it and was shot. I still have no explanation for that.
‘My father was a law-abiding citizen who had been in the British Army. Like me, he had no sympathy for terrorism.
‘Even if he had been an informant I would have no problem with that.
‘It’s part of the sadness of Northern Ireland that the peaceful civil rights movement to which I belonged when a student at Queen’s University in Belfast turned into civil unrest and then into a kind of civil war.’
And of the men who assassinated his father?
‘They’d be in their 50s now and I would hope that as time passes they might confess. That would really be closure.’
Inspired by Martin Luther King
The years may have passed and time heals, but Leo Madden’s memory of the intolerance and prejudice faced by himself and other members of the Catholic minority in Ulster are still painful.
He says: ‘When we moved to Belfast from Newry in about 1960, ours was one of just three Catholic families on a Protestant housing estate.
‘I know all about discrimination.
‘I know what it’s like to be jostled, and for people to walk away just because you’re what they called a ‘‘teague’’.
‘I remember our windows being smashed by Loyalists.’
Simmering discontent among Ulster’s Catholic population over sectarian abuse of housing and employment laws boiled over in the late 1960s with the beginning of the civil rights marches.
The young Leo Madden, then a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, was among them.
He adds: ‘We were inspired by Martin Luther King and what he had done in America with his marches and his non-violent action.
‘Northern Ireland in those days was like a one-party state and that was a problem if you were a Catholic.
‘I remember one march when [Ian] Paisley’s mob tried to stop us getting to the city hall.
‘We got behind them and staged our demonstration before being removed by the police.’
He says his upbringing had been nationalist – but very different from the republicanism of Sinn Fein and the IRA.