Northern Ireland

Sean Brown widow reveals how she desperately searched for missing husband

GAA chairman was abducted and killed by loyalists in May 1997

Murdered GAA official Sean Brown
Murdered GAA official Sean Brown

The widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown has told how she desperately searched for her husband unaware he had been abducted and killed by a sectarian gang.

In a rare interview for a new documentary about the brutal murder, 86-year-old Bridie Brown recalls the evening her husband’s life was brought to a violent end by a LVF gang.

The 61-year-old was abducted as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAA club in May 1997.

He was then taken in the boot of his own car to a laneway near Randalstown, Co Antrim, where he was shot six times.

Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown
Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown (Liam McBurney/PA)

During the film Mr Brown’s son, also called Sean, tells how he attended a club meeting with on the night of the murder and that his father had told him to go ahead on his own when it was over.

Mrs Brown reveals how she later went in search of her husband after he failed to return home.

“If he was going to be late he would have let me know, he would have been very attentive like that,” she said.

“At 2.30 in the morning I took a torch out of the cupboard and decided I would take a walk out to the club.

“I came up the pitch and went in through the turnstile and had the torch with me and shone it right around and walked around the buildings again.

“No, there was nobody about, not a sinner, no cars, no nothing.”

Mrs Brown remembers how she concluded that someone may have taken ill and that her husband had brought them to the hospital, adding, “I was happy with that.”

However, at 6.30am the appearance of two RUC men on the street where the Brown family lived raised concerns.

“I thought ‘there’s something going on so I just went down to them and I said ‘my husband didn’t come home last night, where’s his body at?’” she said.

Mrs Brown explains how the two RUC officers showed little sympathy.

“Then whenever the policemen came up and into the house, they were anything but nice,” she said.

“Whenever they did come in, they were saying very little.”

Her daughter Clare Loughran told how she began to cry when the police arrived at her home that fateful morning.

Bridie recounted that “Clare must have heard the commotion, and she came down the stairs and was crying, ‘what’s she crying for?’” one of the officers said.

“(They were) not a bit pleasant,” Mrs Brown added.

The powerful documentary opens and closes with Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney reciting his famous poem ‘The Forge’ and includes footage of Mr Brown hosting the famous wordsmith at Bellagy GAA club after he picked up his prestigious accolade.

The film, which details the circumstances of Mr Brown’s death and the legal battle his family has faced, also includes a contribution from the poet’s brother, Dan Heaney, and GAA president Jarlath Burns.

It also highlights the contribution made by Mr Brown’s son Damian who attended dozens of inquest hearings before his death in 2021.

Mr Brown’s daughter Siobhan Brown urged members of the public to watch the documentary.

“The documentary is a very emotional account of daddy’s life that not only portrayed the events around the time of his murder and the events leading up to the collapse of his inquest but also what his life was like beforehand,” she said.

“I would appeal to everyone to watch this documentary to get an insight into the life of Sean Brown and how an innocent hard working family man came to lose his life in such a tragic way and the uphill battle that we as a family have faced during the last 26 plus years in order to find the truth as to how and why he was murdered and ultimately to seek justice.”

Ms Brown thanked the makers and all those who took part in the documentary.

“They did an excellent job in such a short time and treated us with the utmost respect when we were facing difficult days before the collapse of the inquest and indeed since,” she said.

“We were also glad that they could incorporate reference to our brother Damian who sadly passed away. His fight for justice for daddy has not gone unnoticed either.”

‘Murder of a GAA Chairman’ has been made by Belfast based Fine Point Films, who were also behind the acclaimed documentary No Stone Unturned, about the UVF murder of six Catholic men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.

From left, Trevor Birney, director of the Sean Brown film, Oscar-winner Jim Sheridan, film executive producer Eimhear O'Neill, Oscar-winner Terry George and Brown family solicitor Niall Murphy.
From left, Trevor Birney, director of the Sean Brown film, Oscar-winner Jim Sheridan, film executive producer Eimhear O'Neill, Oscar-winner Terry George and Brown family solicitor Niall Murphy.

Bellaghy native Eimhear O’Neill, an executive producer on the film project, is a former neighbour of the Brown family and was raised just yards from the Wolf Tones grounds.

She recounts how as a young girl she “lived a breathed Gaelic football” and regularly came into contact with Mr Brown,

“The club for us was everything, it was the heart of our village, and Sean was our chairman,” she said.

“We were led by his example, he put everything into the club, into Bellaghy, so we were taught from such an early age that’s what we have to do and that’s what we all did.”

She recalls how as an 11-year-old who was the only female member of the club’s under-12 team she “pestered” the club chairman to set up a girl’s team.

“He always gave me his time, he always listened to me, (and said) look Eimhear, I’ll look into it.

“A short time before Sean was murdered, it might only have been in the week leading up….he called me over and he said ‘I’m going to look into the girls team if we have the numbers I’ll run it’.

“It was that sense that Sean was listening and was trying to do something for you, that just spurred you on.”

Ms O’Neill, who spoke to Mr Brown the night he was abducted and killed, said news that he had been killed “was so hard to take in”.

“It felt scary, you are a child, and you are living on that road and you know the man really well, who had been murdered, it was a scary thing.

“I can just talk from the perspective of being a child and it was just so incredibly sad, everyone, the club, the village….was just grieving.

“God knows how Sean’s family was feeling, the pain must have been unimaginable.”

An inquest was abandoned last month after coroner Patrick Kinney, who is also a High Court judge, confirmed he was unable to complete the legal process due to PSNI and MI5 failures to disclose vital information.

Both made applications for multiple redactions to sensitive documents connected to the murder under Public Interest Immunity (PII).

These can be used by state agencies to withhold information they do not want the public to see.

In recent correspondence Mr Kinney urged Secretary of Chris Heaton-Harris to establish a public inquiry.

Instead, the British government has launched a legal challenge over a decision by the coroner to issue a limited gist, or summary, of sensitive information linked to the loyalist killing.

It emerged this week that Mrs Brown has now threatened her own judicial review proceedings against Mr Heaton-Harris over his continued refusal to order a public inquiry.

The gist issued by Mr Kinney in February confirmed how more than 25 people had been linked by intelligence to the murder of Mr Brown, including several state agents.

Earlier court hearings heard that a suspect in the murder was believed to be a serving member of the Royal Irish Regiment while another suspect held a personal protection weapon and was regularly visited by a police officer at his home.

It has also been established that a RUC surveillance operation on LVF leader Mark ‘Swinger’ Fulton, who has been named in court papers as a suspect in the murder, was lifted the night before the killing and picked up again the following morning.

*Murder of a GAA Chairman will be broadcast on Monday, April 22 at 9.35pm.