Long delayed inquests open for widow's family who were shot dead by UVF gunmen

Inquest held for woman whose husband and parents were shot dead in gun attack. Credit: PA

A woman whose husband and parents were murdered by loyalists in the same year has spoken emotionally about the impact of their loss as long awaited inquests opened.

Bernadette McKearney's husband Kevin, 32, was shot dead by a UVF gunman inside his family run butcher shop in the village of Moy, Co Tyrone in January 1992.

His uncle Jack McKearney, 69, was fatally wounded in the same attack and died in hospital three months later.

Later that year, Mrs McKearney's parents, Charlie and Tess Fox - who were 63 and 54 respectively, were shot dead by the UVF inside their home in Moy.

Long delayed inquests into the four deaths are being heard together due to apparent linkages between the suspects and weapons involved in the two shooting attacks.

On the first day of the proceedings at Craigavon courthouse in Co Armagh, Mrs McKearney, a mother-of-four, broke down in the witness box as she described the devastation suffered by her family 31 years ago.

"On Friday January 3, 1992 our lives were turned upside down and life was never the same," she said of the day her husband was murdered.

"I remember during his wake my youngest daughter, who was two, thought his coffin was a (nativity) crib and we were going to blow out the candles and sing Happy Birthday, as her two brothers and sister celebrated their birthdays a few weeks earlier."

Mrs McKearney told coroner judge Richard Greene KC how her parents had helped and supported her in the months after her husband's death.

She then described the last conversation she had with her mother at her home before her murder on September 6, 1992.

"When I was leaving, my mother's last words were 'daughter ring me when you get home'," she said.

"I remember on September 6, the day my parents were murdered, going home and thinking who do I phone now to say that I am safely home."

She told the court of the financial struggles the family endured after her husband's death and how, despite a diagnosis of MS, she retrained and completed a degree as a librarian.

"I graduated about 10 years ago and I know Kevin would have been proud of me," she said

Mrs McKearney added: "I can't believe we're having an inquest. For this past 31 years I've been given dates for an inquest only to be let down. I was asked what I wanted from the inquest and I said closure, but what is closure?

"At least I will now have a death certificate stating Kevin's death."

The inquest will be heard in different modules. The primary focus on the opening day was on the events around the first attack at the butcher's shop. The shooting was carried out by a lone UVF gunman.

When he left the shop, he failed in an attempt to kill again when he opened fire on a parked car occupied by a local family.

Two weeks before the shooting, the INLA had murdered 19-year-old Robin Farmer, a Protestant, in his family shop in Moy. He was studying in Glasgow and had just returned to Northern Ireland for Christmas.

The UVF attack on the McKearneys' butcher shop was widely viewed as a retaliatory sectarian attack.

The court heard that a week before the incident, Kevin McKearney's mother received a threatening call warning that the men in white coats (referring to the butcher coats) would be shot the following Friday, the day the attack took place.

The coroner was told that Kevin McKearney and his father Kevin Snr informed a local priest and an independent councillor about the threat and the information was subsequently passed on to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Kevin McKearney's sister Angela was in the shop when the shooting happened. She said the McKearneys were a well-known republican family in the area and they were concerned that they would be targeted after Mr Farmer's murder.

The court also heard that on the night before the phone call threat, Kevin McKearney Senior was warned by someone in a pub about the prospect of an imminent shooting in the village.

Angela McKearney said the family had considered closing the shop down over fears it would be attacked. She said they decided to continue trading after the RUC gave an assurance the shop would be monitored and secured.

The court heard that while police had been in the village on the day of the shooting, the gun attack took place 15 minutes after officers left the area.

Mrs McKearney was in a toilet at the back of the shop when she heard the shots and emerged to see her uncle Jack falling backwards into a side room and her brother lying motionless behind the counter in a pool of blood.

"Kevin McKearney was my brother, my confidant, my best friend and my business partner," she told the court.

"John McKearney was my uncle in name but in reality he was much, much more than that. He believed in Kevin and I and helped us at every chance he could. There has been a massive hole in my life ever since these two men were taken from me."

She recalled how she and her brother were in the process of taking over the running of the shop from their retiring father and they had already made plans to redevelop the business.

"By January 1992 plans were already in motion and daddy was in the process of passing over ownership to us, however, things changed drastically for all of us," she said.

"All in all, it is not fair that these two men who were loved by family and community had their lives cut short in such brutal circumstances.

"It robbed Kevin's family and myself of financial security and most devastatingly I had to witness the death of my own brother and uncle.

"The emotional impact of this is simply immeasurable. These two men were irreplaceable to me and not a day goes by that I do not miss them."

Kevin McKearney's son Cathal described the evening of the shooting. He recalled his mother screaming and running out of the house when she was told the news and how later on she returned and gathered the children together to tell them their dad had been killed by "bad men".

"What we would like out of this is truth and justice for daddy and possibly some answers as to why he was allowed to be killed," he said.

Patricia Kearney, one of Charlie and Tess Fox's six children, also addressed the coroner's court.

"At the time of their deaths I was angry, upset and couldn't understand why those murderers had targeted two innocent people," she said.

"The days leading up to the funerals were traumatic and emotional for us all and now whenever I see footage of their funerals

"I always wonder how my three sisters and I got the strength that day to be able to carry one of their coffins and my two brothers carried the other."

The inquest continues.

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