Marie Breen-Smyth, the Associated Dean International at the University of Surrey, talks to Peter Heathwood.
At home in Cliftonville in north Belfast, Peter was sitting with his wife and three young children after finishing his dinner. The doorbell rang.
“I heard this almighty squeal. “Gunmen, Gunmen!” In Belfast in the 1970s nobody messed about. When somebody said that you knew it was serious.”
Peter witnessed an armed man holding his struggling wife. Peter launched his 6 foot 3 inch frame at the intruder, successfully freeing his wife. Before he could close the door a second armed man opened fire. Peter was hit twice in his upper body. “I can remember no sound, they say that’s always a bad sign when you don’t hear the firing.”
It was weeks after the shooting that Peter finally regained full consciousness.
“One lung was shattered, nine of my ribs were broken. I had constant infections.”
Peter was relocated to Musgrave Park Hospital. One incident he recalls vividly was an interaction with a doctor. “When the doctor came to me in Musgrave Park, his actual words were, ‘Peter, do you see that wheelchair son? Get used to it you’ll be in it for the rest of your life.”
Peter was discharged after 50 weeks of medical treatment.
He recalls his criminal injuries claim. He used the money to buy a wheelchair accessible bungalow. His family began to rebuild their lives.
Peter tried to find a vocation in teaching, in sales, and in insurance. He was rejected for over 40 positions. His disability proved to be a challenge for employers.
“In the 1980s when you are in a wheelchair, you are expected to stay at home.”
With finding a job becoming a fruitless endeavour Peter’s thoughts began to focus on the circumstances of his shooting. There had been two similar incidents around the same time and the offenders had been brought to justice. When Peter began to make inquiries, he discovered that the bullet taken from his abdomen two years earlier had not had any forensic treatment. He became curious about the R.U.C’s agenda, “the fact that they didn’t do forensics is damning of the police, if nothing else.”
On his own personal feelings about the reasons behind his attack Peter says, “To this day we would still believe as a family, Loyalists did the killing but at the behest of someone inside the R.U.C Special Branch”
Although suspicious of political cover-ups, Peter still has a deep gratitude towards police in uniform, “I believe they were the pawns in the game. They tried to save my life and I honour them for that.”
Peter has one simple desire, which he feels would help him move on with his life. “I would like the state just say that, there was a dirty war going on and we did certain things and that’s it. I’m not looking anybody jailed over it.”
Peter’s concern over his mobility and health has increased as he has got older. “I would like the Northern Ireland Government to pay attention to those of us who are left alive who were seriously injured in the Troubles. To reassure us that we will be taken care off in some way.”
Although Peter has increasing concerns over his own personal welfare and well being, he is happy to see a new generation being brought up in a time of peace. Peter actively engages with the community and other injured individuals to ensure a better future. “With my work with Wave, I hope to create a better society so that my grandchildren don’t have to go through what we went through.”
Becoming resigned to a wheelchair Paul shares with us, “I did have a problem psychologically for 2-3 years coming to terms with it.”
Although not a man of religious beliefs Peter was taken to Lourdes by his mother and his wife. He witnessed injured individuals who could barely bat an eyelid or had little mental capacity. This had a significant impact on his psychological acceptance.
“It just came across to me at that time (2 years after the shooting) what are you moaning about? You could’ve been left like that. That was a very important moment…I realised then I should concentrate on what I can do and stop worrying about what I can’t do.”
“What helped my was my family. My children helping them through school and university and the love and caring and nurturing that I get from my brothers and sisters…. and my friends, who have never, from the moment it happened, looked at me any differently. It’s absolutely amazing how your close friends don’t see you as any different.”
This interview was supported by the WAVE Trauma Centre, University of Surrey and the Community Relations Council.