Hope lives on 10 years after horror at Casement

 

Sometimes, when the road ahead appears uncertain and full of dangers still to be overcome, it is restorative to remember how far we have travelled and in how relatively short a time.

I made a small personal pilgrimage to Andersonstown this week. It was St Patrick's Day but that was not the prime purpose of my journey.

I walked from St Agnes's Church to Milltown Cemetery, past Casement Park and up the Andersonstown Road to the narrow lane that runs off to the right beside a bookie's shop. The patch of waste ground is still there, though it seemed smaller than I remember it.

It is 10 years ago today that I walked down that lane and saw the bodies. The two men had been stripped to their underpants, but whoever had performed this task had left the socks on their feet. A priest, who I later found out was Father Alex Reid, was crouched over one of them.

He looked up at me and said: "Do you know how to give the kiss of life? This one is still breathing." As I bent down, the dying man's eyes flickered. "I'll try, Father, though I've never done it." He replied: "No, I'll stay here, you try and get an ambulance." I went into the bookie's shop and asked to use the phone, explaining why I needed it. After I finished they insisted, with great kindness, that I have a cup of tea. When I came out to tell the priest that an ambulance was on the way, there were policemen everywhere and the two bodies had been covered with tarpaulins.

It was March 19th 1988 and this was the last episode in the awful chapter of events that had started in Gibraltar two weeks previously, when three IRA activists - Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Daniel McCann - had been shot dead by the SAS.

There followed the long, sad business of getting their bodies home, the attack on the funerals in Milltown Cemetery by the loyalist, Michael Stone, when three more people were killed.

Finally, when it seemed that a community exhausted by grief and fear could take no more, came the funeral of Kevin Brady and the scenes that accompanied it: the silver car streaking down a slip road, the driver producing a gun and the instant terror that this was another loyalist attack, the two men dragged out by a crowd of mourners who seemed transformed in a matter of seconds into a vengeful mob, pushing and pulling their captives into Casement Park.

People have told me since that the killing of the two corporals - Derek Woods and Robert Howes - was a turning point, that the ghastly images which were seen across the world on television finally brought home to the politicians that something radical must be done to save Northern Ireland from the abyss.

That wasn't how it seemed in the immediate aftermath. West Belfast had never felt so lonely and shunned. This was a community physically and emotionally at breaking point, whose members now felt themselves to be labelled by the world media as savages.

When one tried to speak to politicians in Dublin and Belfast about the desolation of those days, the most common reaction was one of horrified condemnation of the crowd. It didn't end there. At a time when the task was to draw the community of west Belfast back into civil society, there started instead the process of arrests and convictions, often based on flimsy and unsafe evidence.

Some images don't fade. I cannot see the green of an Aer Lingus uniform without remembering those days. When Michael Stone lobbed the first of his grenades into the crowd, most of us dived for cover. I remember looking over at Gerry Adams. He was standing at the edge of one of the graves, steadying a young woman in a green coat as she tried to place flowers on the coffin.

Three days later, when one of the soldiers was dragged past me, so close I could have touched him, his sweater was the same shade of green. His face had a look of powerless terror. I've often wondered what would have happened if he had shouted out to the assembled journalists. Could we have stopped what was happening? Would we have tried? Perhaps not.

Most of us who had lived through that week were as terrified as the mourners that this was another loyalist attack. Much later that day I walked down the Falls Road. Shutters had been pulled down hurriedly on the small shops. It felt as though people were watching, fearful about what had happened and might still be to come.

On Tuesday I walked the same route. The whole of west Belfast was en fΩte for St Patrick's Day. Middle-aged women wore great bunches of shamrock on their bosoms, children in wonderfully ornate costumes danced down the Falls. A small boy staggered under a cardboard shamrock almost as large as himself. A take-away shop selling green sausages did a roaring trade. A football match was in loud and enthusiastic progress at Casement Park.

I know that the St Patrick's Day parade in Belfast has been criticised as exclusively nationalist, that groups and individuals from loyalist areas did not feel that they could join in. Of course, that is very sad. But it seems to me it must also be said that the organisers did try to the best of their ability to make it, at the very least, inoffensive by ensuring there were no political banners or speeches.

Maybe they didn't succeed. There are still lessons to be learned for next year, but we are all at the start of a learning curve in these matters. Given time - and peace - the goodwill exists to ensure that Belfast can have a St Patrick's Day parade for all its citizens.

Walking the length of the Falls Road from Andersonstown all I could think of was, would I have believed this possible if anyone had suggested it 10 years ago? But then, who would have thought that the main news on St Patrick's Day 1998 would be about Gerry Adams and David Trimble in the White House, discussing peace with the President of the United States?

There is still a long and difficult way to go. We know that the next few weeks will be, at the very best, tense with disappointment and recriminations. They may also be scarred by violence and tragedy. But nobody should forget how far we have come, how different the possibilities are now from those days 10 years ago.

Many people still live with bitter memories of that violence, and those will not go away. I am not suggesting that we forget these deaths, simply that it may help those who mourn if we can believe that they helped to bring about change.

My last stop on Tuesday was at St Agnes's Church on the Andersonstown Road where, 10 years ago, the parish priest tried desperately to calm and comfort his flock. There I knelt to remember all those who had died during those days - Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann, Sean Savage, John Murray, Thomas McErlean, Kevin Brady, Derek Woods, Robert Howes. May they rest in peace.