An outspoken critic of the IRA, the BBC Records Breaker presenter had recently offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of IRA bombers.
Alan Ross McWhirter (12 August 1925 – 27 November 1975), known as Ross McWhirter, was, with his twin brother, Norris, the co-founder of The Guinness Book of Records and a contributor to The Record Breakers. He was assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).
McWhirter was the youngest son of William McWhirter, editor of the Sunday Pictorial, and Margaret “Bunty” Williamson. He was born at “Giffnock” (after Giffnock Church in Glasgow, where the McWhirters were married), 10 Branscombe Gardens, Winchmore Hill, London, N21. In 1929, as William was working on the founding of the Northcliffe Newspapers Group chain of provincial newspapers, the family moved to “Aberfoyle”, in Broad Walk, Winchmore Hill. Like his two brothers, Ross McWhirter was educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Oxford. Between 1943 and 1946, Ross served with the Royal Navy on board a minesweeper in the Mediterranean.
Ross and Norris both became sports journalists in 1950. In 1951, they published Get to Your Marks, and earlier that year they had founded an agency to provide facts and figures to Fleet Street, setting out, in Norris McWhirter’s words “to supply facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks, encyclopaedias and advertisers”.
While building up their accounts, they both worked as sports journalists. One of the athletes they knew and covered was runner Christopher Chataway, the employee at Guinness who recommended them to Sir Hugh Beaver. After an interview in 1954 in which the Guinness directors enjoyed testing the twins’ knowledge of records and unusual facts, the brothers agreed to start work on the book that would become The Guinness Book of Records. In August 1955, the first slim green volume – 198 pages long – was at the bookstalls, and in four more months it was the UK’s number one non-fiction best-seller. Both brothers were regulars on the BBC show The Record Breakers. They were noted for their memory, enabling them to provide detailed answers to any questions from the audience about entries in The Guinness Book of Records. Norris continued on the programme after Ross’s death.
In 1958, long after the legend of William Webb Ellis had become engrained in rugby culture, Ross managed to rediscover his grave in “le cimetière du vieux château” at Menton in Alpes Maritimes (it has since been renovated by the French Rugby Federation).
In the early 1960s, he was a Conservative Party activist and sought, unsuccessfully, the seat of Edmonton in the 1964 general election. Following his murder, his brother and others founded the National Association for Freedom (later The Freedom Association).
Views on Ireland:
McWhirter advocated restrictions on the Irish community in Britain such as making it compulsory for all Irish people in Britain to register with the local police and to provide signed photographs of themselves when renting flats or booking into hotels and hostels. In addition, McWhirter offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for several recent high-profile bombings in England that were publicly claimed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). In doing so, McWhirter recognised that he could then be a target himself. This was considered a “bounty” by the IRA Army Council, a view that led directly to the events that followed.
On 27 November 1975, McWhirter was assassinated by two IRA volunteers, Harry Duggan and Hugh Doherty, both of whom were members of what became known as the Balcombe Street Gang, the group for whose capture McWhirter had offered the reward. He was shot at close range in the head and chest outside his home in Village Road, Bush Hill Park, Enfield, Middlesex and was taken to Chase Farm Hospital, but died soon after being admitted. His killers were captured and charged with his and nine other murders. They were sentenced to life imprisonment but freed in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Duggan said later, “McWhirter thought he lived in Texas. He put a bounty on our heads. He asked to be killed.”