Dying for Love

updated 10/06/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT WAS JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS—a season for celebration. In her usual exuberant but disarming way, Bernadette Martin, 18, walked up to the table of a fellow worker at the holiday party of her employer outside Belfast, Northern Ireland, and began to flirt. "She was cute," recalls Gordon Green, 20, who proceeded to ask her for a date. "She loved dancing, in her wee tops, miniskirts and platform shoes." Soon, Martin was Green's steady pool partner, his happy-go-lucky sidekick, his first real love. Utterly smitten, he once pulled aside his older sister Wendy, 21, to gaze at Bernadette as she dozed on a couch. "Gordon said, 'Shhh, come here and see my beautiful wee girl,' " Wendy recalls. "And she was gorgeous."

In their seven months together, Martin and Gordon talked about getting married. But that was not to be. On July 15, in the darkness before dawn, an intruder entered a second-floor bedroom of the Green family house in the village of Aghalee and shot Bernadette Martin four times—twice in the head—as she slept fully clothed in her boyfriend's arms. She died the next day at a Belfast hospital, the latest victim of the bloody 28-year religious and political schism known in Northern Ireland as the Troubles. Martin was a Catholic; Green is a Protestant. They had fallen in love "across the barricades"—a supposed taboo that, among radicals in their bitterly divided land, can still merit punishment by death. (Police, who will acknowledge only that they're "working on the premise that the motive may have been sectarian," charged a neighbor of the Greens, alleged Protestant paramilitary member Trevor McKeown, 36, with murder on July 18. He has pleaded not guilty.)

For the vast majority in Northern Ireland, however, the brutal killing of a teenager who was oblivious to politics—but loved Ricki Lake and rave music—was seen as an outrage. Several thousand Protestants and Catholics attended a July memorial service near Martin's hometown, and her name has become a rallying cry for a renewed effort to bring peace. Five days after the shooting the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish Republican Army announced a cease-fire in its campaign of guerrilla bombings, and, in September, its political arm, Sinn Fein, formally renounced violence. Despite opposition from extremists on both sides to fresh attempts at peace, Martin's grieving family sees cause for hope. Although perhaps wishful thinking, her father, Laurence Martin, 42, a long-haul trucker, says, "If there were 10 men sitting on the IRA council deciding how to vote on bringing in a new cease-fire, maybe it's just possible that the swing vote may have been due to Bernadette's death. I'd like to think that she went down in history."

She had already conquered hearts in her County Armagh hometown of Lurgan, where the population of 26,000 is evenly split between Catholics and Protestants. To date 83 residents there have died in the Troubles. But Martin, who just a couple months earlier asked her father whether IRA members are Catholic or Protestant, had no time for politics. "She loved going out, partying," says a cousin, Angela Allen, 18, and was looking forward to a summer trip to Turkey. In her early teens, Martin won a shelfful of trophies as a competitive ballroom and jazz dancer—until, that is, practice interfered with her social activities, says Allen. "She was full of life."

Laurence Martin and his wife, Margaret, also 42, a homemaker, have five surviving children, aged 8 to 24, but Bernadette—who left school to begin working at 16—most resembled her father. "She and I have the same quick temper," he says. "She could bang a few doors if she didn't get her way."

That, of course, wasn't necessary with Gordon Green. The couple met at Avondale Foods, a processing plant in Lurgan, where Martin wrapped sandwiches from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Green earned about $250 a week packing vegetables. Green says they never discussed religion—at work, at their family homes or at the Cellar, a "mixed" pub in Lurgan where young Catholics and Protestants hang out and play pool together. "There was never any hostility," says Green, who lives with his family—John, 56, a gas station worker, Josephine, 53, a home-maker and three siblings, 16 to 25—in heavily Protestant Aghalee (pop. 480). "No friends ever said, 'Be careful.' "

The danger, though, was only too real. After work on July 14, Martin and Green caught a bus to the Martin family home a mile outside Lurgan. After a brief stop there they went to Aghalee, had a nightcap at the Lock-Keeper's Inn (where a sign on the wall reads, No...Political Discussion in this Bar, Please) and chatted over tea at the Green house with Wendy until all three fell asleep in Gordon's bedroom. Around 4 a.m., police believe, the killer entered through an unlocked back door and made his way up the dark stairs. Moments later the household was awakened by Gordon's shouting, "Mummy, Daddy, Bernie's been shot," recalls John Green. "My wife said, 'Wake him up, it must be a nightmare.' I ran into the bedroom and said,

'No, it's real!' "(Police and the Green family are not allowed to discuss details of the crime during the ongoing investigation.)

Martin was taken to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, where she clung to life for nearly 10 hours. While waiting for news from the doctors, her parents—whom the Greens had called immediately after the shooting—walked to a nearby chapel to pray for her recovery. "I remember thinking that the day Bernadette was born I had gone to the same chapel to thank God for her," says Laurence Martin, his voice breaking. "I suddenly thought, if I go in here now, it could be the day she dies." Tragically, it was. Bernadette's body-was returned to the Martins' home for a wake before her burial three days later in Lurgan on July 18.

In Aghalee, haunted by the tragedy, the Green family is hoping to demolish the historic 19th-century farmhouse they've lived in for 20 years. For two weeks, Gordon couldn't bring himself to go upstairs, and he has yet to reenter his old bedroom. Seven miles away in Lurgan, Bernadette's little sister Laura, 8, is plagued by nightmares. Her father, says a niece, is nearly inconsolable. Still, he asks only for an end to the hatred. "People ask, 'Where does this forgiveness come from?' " says Martin. "And I say, 'I don't know, but what's the point of revenge?' Revenge breeds more revenge. An eye for an eye doesn't really work, does it?"

NINA BIDDLE in Northern Ireland

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