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‘The tea was put on, and Dad didn’t come home’: Murder of a GAA Chairman

Television: Documentary conveys nightmare left in the wake of the murder of Bellaghy GAA chairman Seán Brown by a loyalist death squad 25 years ago

The challenge when making a documentary about the murder in May 1997 of Bellaghy GAA chairman Seán Brown is to balance the personal and the political. Brown’s killing was, in the first instance, a terrible evil visited upon an innocent man and his family, and the excellent Murder of a GAA Chairman (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) conveys the horror of what the Browns endured – and the shadow cast by the death more than 25 years on.

But it also paints a broader portrait of Northern Ireland in the 1990s – when peace finally seemed like a possibility and embittered dinosaurs were lashing out at the changing of the ways. One of those changes was the growing confidence of the nationalist population, which was standing up to the Orange Order and its marches – the context in which Brown was singled out by a loyalist death squad.

All these decades removed, it is striking to see so much ancient hatred in the faces of Orange marchers – often old men to whom life had not conveyed wisdom, merely resentment and an inability to comprehend nationalists pushing back against unionist hegemony. “The Orange Order was lending itself to a process that comfortably encompassed loyalist paramilitaries,” says journalist Susan McKay.

The plan formulated by loyalist terrorists was to spread fear among the nationalist community by putting a crosshair on everyone’s back. If you were a nationalist and you didn’t lie down, you were a target.


Brown, a prominent GAA man, was one such victim and was abducted late one night as he was locking the gates of Bellaghy Wolfe Tones. “The tea was put on, and Dad didn’t come home,” says daughter Clare. In heartbreaking footage filmed months before his killing, we see him welcome Bellaghy native Seamus Heaney back to the Wolfe Tones club. Heaney, who had won the Nobel Prize two years previously, is delighted to be there, explaining rural Derry was still core to his being. “Even though you move outwards, you are still at the centre something the same,” he says.

This isn’t old history. There were always suspicions of British state collusion in the murder. For instance, having bundled Brown’s body into the boot of his car, the killers were able to drive, apparently at leisure, past a nearby RUC station brimming with security cameras – only for the footage to later turn out to have mysteriously vanished.

The involvement of security forces was all but confirmed at an inquest this year into the killing, at which the coroner revealed that, among the 25 suspects, “several were agents of the state”. The coroner added that redactions of intelligence material by the British government prevented him from satisfactorily investigating the circumstances of the murder.

Will the truth ever come out? The British authorities seem determined to keep it buried: the controversial Troubles Legacy Act will bring to an end ongoing inquests such as that into the murder of Brown by May 1st, 2024. “Hiding behind legal thuggery”, was how the Brown family solicitor Niall Murphy characterised the legislation. “On the first of May, justice dies.”

The achievement of this impressive film is to bring alive the fraught state of Northern Ireland in the 1990s while making it clear that, in continuing to withhold the truth from the family, London is adding to the wrongs committed 27 years ago. The message, delivered calmly and articulately yet with tangible anger, is that if nothing can bring Brown back, it surely isn’t too late to uncover the truth and help his family receive justice.