Time for North’s politicians to come to grips with past

Troubles victim says those in South and Britain know little of enduring suffering

 Stephen Travers, bass player, Brian Maguire, road manager, Des Lee, saxophone player and Ray Miller, drummer, of the original Miami Showband, at a wreath-laying ceremony organised by at Parnell Square, Dublin, last August. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Stephen Travers, bass player, Brian Maguire, road manager, Des Lee, saxophone player and Ray Miller, drummer, of the original Miami Showband, at a wreath-laying ceremony organised by at Parnell Square, Dublin, last August. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

Alan McBride’s wife, Sharon was one of 10 people killed in the IRA’s bomb attacks on Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road in 1993, an explosion that killed one of the bombers, Thomas Begley.

Soon afterwards, McBride joined in protests outside Sinn Féin offices. Each day he wrote a love letter to his wife and left it at her graveside. He also wrote several letters to the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams.

“I sent him nine letters over two years. The first couple were angry, but then they were just about Sharon. I sent him photographs of Sharon as well; I just wanted him to know who she was,” he remembers.

In recent months, McBride has joined others left traumatised and mourning by the Troubles to bring their stories before audiences in London, Belfast and south Armagh.

Pain hangs heavy on the group. Stephen Travers survived the Miami Showband massacre in 1975. Joe Campbell’s father, an RUC sergeant, was murdered in 1977.*

Eugene Reavey lost his three brothers when loyalist killers broke into the family’s remote south Armagh farmhouse in 1976, slaughtering two of them as they watched TV, before dragging the third from under a bed as he tried to hide.

The “Voice of the Victim” group was brought together by Travers. In January, they spoke at an Irish Cultural Centre meeting in London chaired by former president Mary McAleese.

Travers now plans more such meetings throughout the two islands, believing that people in Northern Ireland know the stories but those in the Republic and Britain know little of the suffering that stills endures.

Today, voters in the North go to the polls to elect a new Assembly, though the outgoing Assembly and Executive have been unable to find a way of dealing with the legacy of the past.

Even yesterday, there was new controversy when it emerged First Minister Arlene Foster had blocked funding proposed by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan to deal with scores of delayed inquests.

The sides cannot agree on who is a victim, on who should get help and compensation, along with demands on the British government to release long-hidden files on killings involving the police, British army, loyalists and IRA informers.

McBride, Travers, Campbell and Reavey fervently hope for tangible action from the new Assembly and Executive, and soon – though few are optimistic real progress can be made.

Perspectives

McBride believes the Voice of the Victim project has merit. Three of the four stories his group currently tells deal with loyalist collusion. It would be good to have all perspectives told, he says.

Travers takes the point, saying that the line-up will change at future events, that “there are other people who have stories to tell”. Travers was a bass guitarist with the Miami Showband when they were stopped at a checkpoint in Banbridge, Co Down, in 1975, believing it was manned by British soldiers.

A bomb placed on the bus exploded prematurely killing two of the gunmen. The rest opened fire, killing lead singer Fran O’Toole, trumpeter Brian McCoy, and guitarist Tony Geraghty, and wounding himself and saxophonist Des Lee.

“I tell people how the Miami were Catholic and Protestant, how Brian’s dad was grandmaster of the Orange lodge in Tyrone, what Tony Geraghty was like, what Fran O’Toole liked to do, the funny stories and the banter we had,” says Travers.

The past is not an abstract concept. More than 3,700 people were killed in the Troubles. Forty thousand were maimed.

Northern Ireland’s Victims’ Commissioner Judith Thompson recently told the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that 500,000 people were affected and 200,000 of those were left with mental health problems.

The legal definition of a victim or a survivor in Northern Ireland is “someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident”.

Emergency assistance

Or it is someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for those physically or mentally injured, or “someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident”. The definition includes someone who has suffered psychological issues after witnessing a killing, or “the consequences of such an incident or providing medical or other emergency assistance”.

Needless to say this description does not find favour with everyone. Unionists complain that it puts a wounded paramilitary on the same pedestal as a British soldier or police officer or an uninvolved civilian.

“I would not be in favour of changing the definition of a victim,” McBride says. “I mean nobody will ever convince me that my wife and Thomas Begley were on the same page in terms of guilt and innocence.”

“He was a perpetrator, my wife was an innocent woman. So there is definitely a hierarchy. But equally Mrs Begley deserves all the help society can give her to come to terms with the death of her son. I have no difficulty with that,” he says.

Understandably, there are many who cannot be so magnanimous. But, as McBride says, there are always standoffs. Now is the time for the politicians and the British and Irish governments to move on with what is possible.

The proposed “architecture” is already there to address the past, he argues: the “Fresh Start” deal at Stormont proposes, for example, the creation of an oral history archive so that the stories of the Troubles can be told.

An Historical Investigations Unit to investigate past killings is also proposed, along with an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval where perpetrators could tell the truth without fear of prosecution.

Politicians have a duty to use the models agreed, given that they, in turn, are based on proposals made by the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past seven years ago. The next Assembly elections in 2021 must not see victims and survivors simply five years older, but no better off.

* This article was edited on May 23rd, 2016