Northern Ireland

Tassagh deaths: 'We feared O'Hare would abuse our children'

Tassagh murder scene
Image caption Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey died at their remote home near Tassagh

One of four brothers accused of a double murder has said they decided to burn down the murder victim's home to force him to leave because they feared he would abuse their children.

Niall, Martin, Christopher and Stephen Smith deny they killed Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey in an arson attack.

Their cottage near Tassagh in County Armagh was set alight in November 2006.

Niall Smith told the court how devastated he had been to hear that Thomas O'Hare had abused his brother.

He told the jury in Armagh on Monday that the brothers had decided to burn his house to force him out of the area because they were fearful for the children in their family, particularly Stephen Smith's new-born baby.

The prosecution case is that the Smiths were motivated by a desire to 'punish' Thomas O'Hare for sexually assaulting Stephen Smith, many years earlier.

But Niall Smith insisted it had never been their intention to kill either Thomas O'Hare or Lisa McClatchey.

He said that when he emerged from a coma in a Dublin hospital two weeks after the attack, he found out that Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey were dead.

'Most innocent'

"I was absolutely devastated," he said "I didn't want to live any longer. And ever since that day….. well, it never leaves you, your heart is full of sorrow and remorse. Thomas did what he did, but he didn't deserve to die like that.

"And Lisa? Well, she was the most innocent one in all of this. She certainly didn't deserve to die like that. I apologise to the families - they may not accept it - but I apologise with all my heart. This was a tragic accident that was never meant to happen."

He rejected a suggestion, under cross examination that he was engaged in a "cynical performance" and a "damage limitation exercise", insisting that he was glad to have the opportunity to give his story in public.

Earlier, with members of his own family as well as the two victims' families watching on, he had given a detailed description of how he and his brothers had decided to burn Thomas O'Hare's home.

He said they had been driven to Foley Road by a person he refused to name. He, Martin and Peter carried a five-gallon drum of petrol each. Christopher carried a sledge hammer.

Niall Smith said he was last into the house and that two of his brothers were marching Thomas O'Hare towards the door saying: "You're coming out of here".

He described walking on into the house and pouring petrol around several rooms, but insisted he saw no sign of Lisa McClatchey whom he had "never heard of".

He said he poured petrol in several rooms and was walking back down the hall when the house exploded.

"The air just turned into fire," he said. "Everything I was wearing just burst into flames"

He fled the house and stripped all his burning clothing off as he ran across neighbouring fields. He was eventually driven, naked in the back of his own car, to hospital in Dundalk. There, he was placed in an induced coma.

Childhood friend

He insisted that he had no idea how the explosion had been ignited and that he had not done anything to deliberately light the petrol vapour.

He said he had been a friend of Thomas O'Hare when they were younger. They had played football together and travelled together to matches.

In 1998, it emerged that Thomas O'Hare had abused Stephen Smith and two other young boys some years before.

Asked how the family had reacted to this revelation, Niall Smith said: "We were all devastated. Daddy started drinking heavily and mummy was just in bits. She was really worried about Stephen because he was becoming depressed. We were afraid he might harm himself. We just didn't know how to deal with it.

"I was very angry with Thomas. I had thought he was my friend growing up. I was sick and disgusted. How could he do this to young boys?

"I also felt a sense of guilt. How could I not have seen it? Did Stephen see me playing with Thomas and think; 'Why's he playing with him, he's supposed to be my brother?'"

Thomas O'Hare was sentenced in 2000. He was given a probation order. Niall Smith, who was an accountant based in Dublin at that time, said that the family had been disappointed but accepted the court's decision.

He said it was later, when Stephen Smith had become a father himself, and Thomas O'Hare had been seen close to his home, that they decided to burn his house.

Under cross examination, Niall Smith rejected a suggestion that he was lying about not having seen Lisa McClatchey that night.

"According to you, this young woman simply evaporated," prosecution counsel said.

Niall Smith replied: "I don't know how I missed her, but I did, that's the God's honest truth."

The case continues.

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