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'Formidable' Hooded Man McKerr dies at 71

Connla Young

ONE of the 'Hooded Men' who died this week has been described as a "formidable figure" who was widely respected.

Gerry McKerr (71), from Lurgan, Co Armagh, died early on Thursday.

He had suffered failing health in recent months.

Mr McKerr was one of 14 Catholic men who claimed they were tortured during interrogations by RUC Special Branch at a British army base in Ballykelly, Co Derry, in August 1971.

They said they were hooded, deprived of sleep, food and water, forced to listen to loud static noise and made to stand in a stress position and beaten if they fell.

Others say they were forced to wear a hood and told they were going to be dropped from a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air even though they were just several feet off the ground.

The men, who were interned without trial, have continued their fight for justice.

Last year the case was referred back to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) with the support of the Irish government. Last month international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, whose husband is Hollywood actor George Clooney, joined a legal team representing the men taking the UK to the ECHR.

Amnesty International said Mr McKerr was a "tireless campaigner for justice and never gave up, right to his dying day".

A former chairman of the Clanna Gael GAA club in Lurgan, Mr McKerr played for Armagh at minor and senior levels. He was also an accomplished amateur boxer in his home town.

A member of the republican movement since the mid-1960s, Mr McKerr organised the first republican parade in the Church Place area of Lurgan on Easter Sunday 1970.

The following year he was detained without charge and taken to Ballykelly where he was subjected to beatings and other ill treatment.

Eventually he was removed to Crumlin Road jail in Belfast before being transferred to Long Kesh where he was made 'Officer Commanding' of republican prisoners.

After his release in 1975 he was diagnosed with lymphoma which he successfully fought.

Two years later he survived two loyalist murder bids at his Lurgan home.

In the first attack he was shot twice as he fought off two men who called at his front door.

Six weeks later he found a bomb under his car as he prepared to bring his children to school.

His close friend, 'Hooded Men' campaigner Jim McIlmurray, said: "He was a leader of men.

"He not only had the respect of the Hooded men but the ability to organise this campaign.

"I have never seen a man command so much respect."

Mr McIlmurray said his old friend was delighted that the case is being referred back to the European courts.

"It was not final justice but he died in the knowledge we were going back," he said.

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