Northern Ireland

‘Whether or not I condemn him is completely irrelevant’ - Partner and son of murdered INLA man on why they should not be excluded from Troubles payment

Deirdre Owens and her fiancé John Fennell before his death in 1996, with their twin sons Ruaidhri (left) and Fionntan.

THE partner and son of a murdered INLA man have spoken candidly about why they should not be excluded from any payments for relatives of people killed during the Troubles.

Deirdre Owens (54) had 11-month old twin boys (Fionntan and Ruaidhri) in March 1996 when her fiancé John Fennell (40) was beaten to death in Bundoran, Co Donegal, as part of an INLA feud.

A founding member of the republican paramilitary group, the Ardoyne man was bludgeoned to death with a breeze block at a caravan site in Bundoran, Co Donegal – allegedly in retaliation for the murder of INLA chief of staff Gino Gallagher in January 1996.

After a paramilitary funeral featuring masked men and a republican flag draped over the coffin, his young family were left to pick up the pieces.

Deirdre spoke out this week after the outgoing Victims’ Commissioner Ian Jeffers revived a suggestion that all families who lost loved ones during the Troubles should be compensated, including relatives of paramilitaries.

First raised in the Eames-Bradley report of 2009, the latest move was again criticised by several other victims as well as the TUV leader Jim Allister who called it “a provo pay day for terrorist relatives”.

Deirdre Owens pushes her twin boys at the funeral of her partner Republican John Fennell in Ardoyne. He was murdered in a Donegal caravan park as part of an INLA feud on March 5, 1996

Speaking to The Irish News, Deirdre and her son Fionntan, now aged 28, spoke about their experience since 1996 and the polarising moral arguments about who deserves payments.

Both also discussed if they should be expected to condemn John Fennell’s actions in return.

“Like most families I wasn’t, or didn’t want to be, fully aware of what he was involved in,” Deirdre said.

“I had just had two babies as a first-time mother and I was completely engrossed with them.

“To be honest with you I was naïve. There was a feud bubbling as a result of ceasefires being called.

“That was the background. John was meeting up in Bundoran with (former INLA chief of staff) Hugh Torney to put together a press statement.

“He was set upon and murdered, beaten to death. At the time, some members of the INLA denied that but it all came out that it was part of a feud.”

Masked men pose in front of INLA man John Fennell's coffin in 1996.

Losing her job, there was no money coming into the house and she relied on donations of nappies and milk tokens from friends.

Never being able to afford childcare, she has only been able to take part-time jobs over the years.

“The impact on me was profound financially. I had a lot of struggling to do for many years and I don’t have anything like a pension,” she said.

“My kids are now 28, primarily all of their girlfriends have been Protestant. Some have actually been from loyalist families, where I’ve dropped them up and they’ve all been in their band uniforms.

“I’m terrified but my sons don’t give a fiddlers. But I don’t say anything because I don’t want my old fears to become their fears.

“So you just have to let those things ride out, this is the new world you’re hoping our children can have.

“To see each other as human beings and not as enemies.”

Rejecting the term compensation, she said any payments should be seen as a bereavement reparation for families.

Ruaidhhri Owens-Fennell (left) and twin brother Fionntan pictured with their mother Deirdre Owens at Christmas.

She said that while her twin sons missed out on having a father, she feels lucky they had each other.

“They’re a bit of a force to be reckoned with when they’re together,” she said.

“But the boys have grown up with the legacy, being told they aren’t as equal in their victimhood as other people.

“This hierarchy exists which is absolutely ridiculous, because we’re all equal in death.

“You can’t take out on a child the sins of the father.”

Asked if she condemns John Fennell’s actions, she said the wider context could not be ignored.

“His mother was shot in the face by the British Army as a kid. He was from a family of 15 in Ardoyne.

“He was about 14 when the Troubles started and his brother was shot in the head by the British Army and nearly died.

“There was always something going on. He would tell me about walking down the street and a bomb going off.

“He saw his friend getting blown up and major atrocities as a young boy. Like many of a young age, they became child soldiers.

“Simply because they were seeing devastation. Don’t forget Protestants burned out houses in the top of Ardoyne before they would let Catholics move in.

“As young children they were witnessing that. What did people expect?

“It just progressed because the Troubles progressed. People will say he had a choice, yes he chose to stand up and defend. Is that to be condemned?”

INLA man John Fennell's funeral in 1996.

She added: “I know that John wanted peace. I remember when the first IRA ceasefire was called, I met him for lunch and he told me ‘it’s time for the INLA to wind up, it’s time they were gone. There’s no way they can fight the might of the British’”.

“That’s where he was coming from.”

Fionntan said that he and his brother’s experience has differed from others, as they have no direct memory of their father.

“I think it’s quite complicated. I can only speak from what my mum’s told me over the years,” he said.

“Me and my brother don’t really have any memory of it. I can see both sides of the argument, but as my mum’s told me ‘murder is murder’ no matter who does it.

“But if this thing (The Troubles) never happened, then my dad would still be alive and other peoples’ families would be alive.

“As complicated as it is, when people talk about me and my brother we do get assumptions of sins of the father.”

Ruaidhri Owens-Fennell and twin brother Fionntan together on New Year's Eve.

“If I tell people my name, we have to tell them the story of when we were younger and their opinions of me change. If our friends were from a different religion it would get awkward .

“When we were younger, we didn’t like talking about it for that reason.”

On whether he should condemn his father to be considered more eligible for payments, he said: “I think that’s missing the point entirely. It’s looking at the stuff my dad’s done and not what we’ve been through.

“I could sit here and condemn him or say I agree with him, but I don’t know. I never went through anything that would make me agree or not agree with him.

“Everyone needs to be held accountable. But my dad was never convicted, there’s no proof he did anything.

“There was talks that he was the head of everything, but it’s just talk.

“Whether or not I condemn him is completely irrelevant.”

As children, twin brothers Fionntan (left) and Ruaidhri Owens-Fennell