Why the North is failing its victims

In her new book, Jayne Olorunda describes meeting her father’s killer, but Northern Ireland’s ‘victim industry’ is her main target

Jayne Olorunda sits in a Belfast cafe that's popular with hip young professionals. She is a beautiful woman, with a master's degree and a job in a nonprofit organisation. Her maroon nail polish matches her glossy lipstick, and she's dressed casually but fashionably. She fits in seamlessly.

So it's difficult to grasp the life she's had, growing up in Strabane, Co Tyrone, and, later, Belfast – a life so deprived it sounds like something out of a Frank McCourt novel. She's gone hungry, been on the cusp of homelessness and nearly died from an eating disorder. Her teenage years were characterised by moving house constantly – 17 times in a decade – because of racism, poverty and her mother's emotional problems.

Although she has had boyfriends, Olorunda has, at 34, given up hope of marriage or children in order to live with and look after her mother, who has, in recent years, become so ill with mental-health problems that she has attempted suicide. Gabrielle Olorunda has only very lately been properly psychiatrically diagnosed: she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like countless others, Jayne Olorunda is a victim of the Troubles. Her father, Max Olorunda, a Nigerian accountant who had moved to Belfast, was killed when a train he was travelling on was blown up by the IRA, on January 17th, 1980. He was 35. A 17-year-old schoolboy, Mark Cochrane, and one of the two bombers, Kevin Delaney, were also killed by the bomb, which the IRA said detonated prematurely.

As Olorunda's self-published memoir, Legacy, reveals, the fallout from that calamity has spread far and wide, beginning with the devastation of Gabrielle, who, at 28, was left a single parent to three little girls: Jayne, Maxine and Alison, then aged two, four and six.

As an emergency-department nurse in Belfast in the 1970s, Gabrielle was on the front line of treating victims of bombs and shootings, so she was familiar with the resulting horrific injuries. Olorunda says that when Gabrielle was presented with a sealed coffin “as light as a feather” she would have known that her husband’s remains were “a pile of ash”. Max’s widow became haunted by the manner of his death.

There are many disturbing aspects to Olorunda’s story, but one is central: victims of the Troubles have been overlooked – even vilified and isolated – because they don’t fit in with the peace-process narrative.

Richard Haass, the former US envoy to Northern Ireland, is chairing all-party talks about "parades and protests, flags, symbols, emblems and related matters stemming from the past in order to make the peace more resilient", as the Stormont executive puts it. Olorunda believes that if Haass and the politicians gathered around him are genuinely interested in the past they need to "get real". She is keen to discuss her concerns with them, but no one has yet invited her to the table.

Olorunda doesn’t recall the details of the day her father was killed, but her earliest memories are intricately bound up with its aftermath.

“I always remember there was this terrible pain in our house,” she says. “My mother’s behaviour was erratic. Some days she would be fine, other days she would smash lots of crockery, or inexplicably move all the furniture around. She could take to her bed for weeks at a time, so we would have to forage for ourselves. Often, the cupboards were bare, as mum’s salary never stretched till the end of the month.”

Despite Gabrielle working long hours as a nurse, Olorunda remembers a constant financial strain on the family. “When we lived in Strabane, Mum worked over the Border for a spell. By the time she’d paid the higher tax rate and had her money converted into sterling, it was a pittance. But she would never countenance going on benefits. So we were in a catch-22. She worked all the time, but we lived in poverty.”

Their situation was exacerbated by the fact that they didn't easily fit in. Being mixed race in homogenous, deeply conservative 1980s Northern Ireland was bad enough – and Legacy lists many hate crimes, such as a swastika painted on their garden fence and notes through the letterbox saying, "No niggers", but it wasn't the only thing to set them apart.

Although Gabrielle was Catholic, the fact that her husband had been killed by the IRA made republicans view the family with suspicion – and Strabane was a very republican town. It didn’t seem to matter that the IRA had apologised for the unintended murder of Max Olorunda. That fact got lost. If someone was murdered by the IRA, the thinking went, he must have deserved it, probably because he was an informer.

To make matters worse, Gabrielle made no secret of her hatred for paramilitaries, on one occasion physically blocking Martin McGuinness from leading a march into the graveyard where her husband was buried.

As her mental health deteriorated, Gabrielle was on extended sick leave from her job more often, meaning there was less money to pay the rent. Olorunda fell behind with schoolwork, trying to sort out these financial messes, and increasingly she was the only person in a position to do so. Her sister Maxine moved to London and never returned; Alison moved in with her boyfriend.

It was a far cry from how things started out. An attractive and feisty young nurse, Gabrielle Caulfield met the dashing and high-achieving Max Olorunda when she moved from Strabane, her home town, to work at Belfast City Hospital.

The pair fell madly in love and married a year later. Although they came in for some racist abuse, they were too happy and busy with their young family to let it get to them.

But after Max was killed the racism was thrown into much sharper relief. One day while nursing on the wards, Gabrielle was having trouble finding a vein in the arm of one of her patients. The woman snapped at her: “You never could do anything right, could you? You had to bring those three black bastards into the world.”

According to Olorunda, wherever the family turned they were confronted with an astounding lack of sympathy. Even on the night Max was killed, two “hostile and aggressive” CID officers turned up to interrogate Gabrielle.

Olorunda believes her mother never had a chance to grieve properly. There was always some insensitively handled situation that would set her back. Shortly after Max's death, for example, Gabrielle had to endure a court case to establish the facts around his murder – including all the gory details of his burning to death. The next year she was forced to sit through the trial of the surviving IRA bomber, Patrick Flynn. He got 10 years and served six. Decades later, Olorunda and her mother bumped into him in a Belfast taxi depot. Olorunda didn't know what to do. "So I stepped forward and held out my hand," she says. "He was surprised, but he took it, and then he said he'd followed all the news about our family. He knew I'd been to Queen's University and he knew Alison had had a baby.

“When I asked him if he ever regretted what happened to my dad, he started to cry. Then mum began crying too. The pair of them were hugging, and he was saying how sorry he was. That was when I realised that he was a victim, too.”

No benefit for victims

Olorunda is withering about what she calls the "victims industry". She points out that an army of people is employed in well-paid public-sector positions, yet she doesn't feel that victims have benefited a jot.

She has tried "numerous times" to get practical help, especially for the family's housing problems, but "we have never been helped". In her book she publishes email correspondence with the offices of the then first minister, David Trimble, and the former northern secretary Shaun Woodward; her messages were met with noncommittal responses.

Despite these difficulties, Olorunda has completed a BA in Irish history and an MA in European public policy. Would she enter politics? “I’m certainly considering it.”

For now her main concern is her mother. While she’s at work Olorunda has to phone Gabrielle repeatedly to check on her. One day she set fire to the house and had to be sectioned. Olorunda relates all this with something approaching good humour. She seems heartbreakingly strong. “I have to be,” she says. “There’s no one else there for Mum.”

Legacy is available from amazon.com and lulu.com

Read More