A Father’s Fate: The IRA’s Haunting Christmas Present to the Niedermayer Family…

Earlier this month I saw ‘Face Down’, a powerful and heartbreaking documentary by the Dublin film-maker Gerry Gregg about the IRA’s 1973 murder of Thomas Niedermayer, the German manager of an electronics factory on the edge of West Belfast, and the consequent devastation of his family. The script was by David Blake Knox, a former RTE TV producer who had written a 2019 book about the case.1In the words of a senior RUC investigating officer in the film, Niedermayer and the terrible circumstances of his death and its aftermath have been “absolutely, utterly forgotten”.

YouTube video

Niedermayer was an entirely innocent and uninvolved bystander in the Northern Ireland conflict, and he certainly believed he was safe because of that. A former aircraft mechanic, he had come to Belfast in the early 1960s to manage the Grundig factory in Dunmurry, which had created over 1,000 jobs in this unemployment blackspot (it closed after its former manager’s funeral in 1980). He was also the honorary West German consul in the city. He was highly regarded in the Grundig plant by management and workers alike; one worker who spoke to the BBC called it “a model factory” where “Catholics and Protestants can work equally together.”

On the night of 27th December 1973 he was in his home in Andersonstown along with his younger daughter Renate (his wife Ingeborg was in a Belfast hospital receiving treatment for depression). The 15-year-old girl opened the door to two unmasked men who said there had been an accident and some damage to Niedermayer’s car. He went outside to inspect this, but a neighbour saw him being bundled into a car which was driven off at speed. He was never seen alive by his family again. There with was no claim of responsibility.

What appeared to have happened was that the German factory manager had been kidnapped by the IRA to be held as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the British government to get the return to a Northern Ireland prison of two IRA bombers in Britain, the sisters Dolours and Marian Price. The Price sisters, from a fiercely republican Belfast family, had been on hunger strike and had been force-fed in Brixton prison in London, where they were demanding that they should be returned to serve their 20 year sentences in the North, where they could claim the ‘Special Category’ status privileges then afforded to IRA prisoners.

The kidnap operation had been planned and organised by Brian Keenan, the IRA’s quartermaster general, described by journalist Ed Moloney in his authoritative A Secret History of the IRA, as having “entered IRA mythology as one of its hardest men, a skilled and ruthless commander who was as determined a revolutionary as existed anywhere in the IRA.” There may also have been a personal grudge involved: Keenan had been a shop steward in the Grundig factory and had been fired by Niedermayer.

However the kidnap went wrong. The German was kept blindfolded, gagged and bound in a house in Andersonstown less than a mile from his home. On the third day, he tried to escape while going to the toilet, and screamed and shouted when he was restrained. Four men held him down and one pistol-whipped him with a Browning revolver until he stopped moving. An autopsy after the discovery of his body revealed two depressed fractures to his skull.

Keenan instructed the kidnap gang to dispose of Niedermayer’s body secretly and the following evening they buried him ‘face down’ in a rubbish dump on parkland in Colin Glen, in the hills on the edge of West Belfast. Meanwhile his wife was issuing anguished appeals for information about his fate and whereabouts. “Please let me know what has happened to my husband,” she begged on television. “Give me peace within myself. No one can appreciate the agony and strain you are putting me and my daughters through.” A few weeks later she asked again: “Please give me some sign to put an end to this dreadful uncertainty…at least give me some information of where his body may be found, so that he can be decently buried and can rest in peace.” But nothing came back. Six months later she issued her “last and final” appeal: “It is terrible living like this and never knowing. I beg these people to let me know – my life has been shattered.”

However not content with such a cruel silence, the IRA (in tandem with British intelligence) went into lie-spreading ‘black propaganda” mode, with the international media as willing dupes. The Times Ireland correspondent informed his readers that he had been personally assured by the “Provisionals in the IRA battalion in Andersonstown” that “they knew nothing about it.” The Irish Press in Dublin carried an interview with an unnamed loyalist paramilitary ‘commander’ claiming his group had killed the German. Blake Knox believes this line had come from British intelligence: MI5, along with a professional fantasist called Colin Wallace who worked for British Army HQ in Lisburn as an ‘information officer’, also blamed loyalists, claiming that Niedermayer was having an affair with the German wife of unionist politician, Bill Craig. The German tabloid Bild carried the same story (and was successfully sued by Craig for it). The respected German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel again claimed “militant Protestants” had kidnapped Niedermayer, and that he had been having numerous adulterous affairs. All lies: anything but the actual truth about who had killed him. The well-known Irish journalist Kevin Myers, who was then a Belfast-based freelance contributor to the Observer(and is a rare journalist willing to publicly admit his mistakes), admitted in the film that journalists had been “useful idiots” for the IRA.

It not until March 1980 – nearly six and a half years after he was kidnapped – that Niedermayer’s body was found in Colin Glen. Tipped off by an IRA informer, a group of very determined and courageous policemen (with Walther automatic handguns under their waterproof jackets), posing as the ‘West Belfast Environmental Action Group’, spent a month clearing tons of stinking rubbish that had been dumped in the park before they uncovered it.

But the story of this tragic family was far from over. Ingeborg Niedermayer had been declared a widow by a German court in 1976. She believed that if she “knew for certain” what had become of her husband, she might feel better. It was the “not knowing”, she said, “that continually nags at my mind and brings on periods of depression and anxiety”. Since the kidnapping, she had only managed to survive “from day to day.”

In June 1990 Ingeborg returned to Ireland and booked into a hotel in the seaside resort of Bray in County Wicklow. A few days later her body was washed up on a beach at the neighbouring resort of Greystones. Within a year, her younger daughter Renate – who had opened the door to the kidnappers – and was then living in South Africa, also killed herself. In 1996 her older daughter Gabrielle, who had emigrated to Australia with her husband and raised two daughters there, also committed suicide. A few years later she was followed by her husband – a family utterly destroyed.

‘Face Down’ follows Niedermayer’s two brave young grand-daughters, Rachel and Tanya, as they try to piece together the tragic story of their family. Has there ever been any statement of admission, let alone apology, from the IRA? Absolutely not. Perhaps the most arresting clip in the film is of the Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, helping to carry Brian Keenan’s tricolour-draped coffin, after he died of cancer in 2008. This is the woman who will almost certainly be our next Taoiseach, representing our peace-loving nation on the international stage.

Brian Keenan is now a great republican hero: Sinn Fein puts on an annual memorial lecture in his honour, as well as a ‘Brian Keenan mountain run’ to celebrate his ‘love of nature’. One can buy an icon of the IRA leader, described in party publications as a ‘Republican Legend’, in four sizes. He was in charge of the IRA’s 1970s bombing campaign in Britain, in which scores of people, most of them innocent civilians, were killed; he was found guilty of eight of those murders and sentenced to 18 years in a British jail. The Garda agent and former IRA man Sean O’Callaghan said he had also planned the January 1976 Kingsmill killings in South Armagh, in which 10 innocent Protestant workmen died. He is believed to have planned the assassination of the British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, along with his young assistant, Judith Cooke, in Dublin in July 1976. He was a ruthless and amoral killer and organiser of killings, who was utterly shameless about his multiple murderous activities, boasting shortly before his death that “the IRA changed urban warfare on a world basis. Other armed revolutionary organisations have borrowed the IRA’s tactics.” In fairness, I should add that Keenan was largely instrumental in swinging most of the IRA hard-liners behind the Adams leadership’s ‘Time for Peace’ strategy in the 1990s.

Meanwhile the disinformation goes on. Last year, nearly 50 years after Niedermayer’s death, RTE London correspondent John Kilraine reported that released British state papers showed the British government had refused to pass on to the Niedermayer family what it knew about his fate. He said that talks between the British government and the IRA about releasing the kidnapped man in return for the Price sisters’ return to Northern Ireland “came to a halt when Mr Niedermayer was accidentally killed by the kidnap gang.”2 So as usual the fault lay with the dreadful Brits. As it continues to downplay its past connections with the IRA, while simultaneously glorifying that secret army’s sanguinary deeds, Sinn Fein must have been delighted.

‘Face Down’ has been shown throughout August in cinemas in Dublin, Belfast and Galway. Several thousand people will have seen it in that time. If it gives pause to even a few of those people who might be contemplating voting for the party of the Provisional IRA in the upcoming general elections, it will have been worthwhile.

1 David Blake Knox, The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer, 2019

2 ‘British withheld information on Niedermayer kidnapping’ – UK State Papers, RTE, 19 July 2022

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