Making religion an issue

They got Ronnie Graham first, while he was delivering coal not far from his own house in Lisnaskea

They got Ronnie Graham first, while he was delivering coal not far from his own house in Lisnaskea. He was 39, writes Fintan O'Toole

After the killing, the IRA left the guns to be moved by a 13-year-old boy, who had been recruited into its youth wing by a teacher at his school.

Five months later, in November 1981, Ronnie's younger brother, Cecil, was visiting his wife and their newborn baby at her parents' house. She had gone to stay there because the baby had been born prematurely and needed constant attention. But Cecil's wife was a Catholic, and the house she was staying in was in a nationalist area. Cecil was spotted going into the house. As he left, he was shot 16 times.

It took them more than three years to get the third Graham brother. They had tried to get Jimmy in 1980, but he had fought them off, and been given a medal. Perhaps his escape had annoyed them, or perhaps, as many Protestants believed, there was a deliberate plan of ethnic-cleansing, aimed at wiping out whole families. In any case, he was a soft target now. He arrived in the school bus he drove to collect children from a primary school and take them to the local swimming pool. He was parking the bus when they fired the first two shots at him. Then they got into the bus and fired 24 more shots, just to be sure.


In his book Bad Blood, Colm Tóibín recounts a conversation with the local parish priest, Father Gaffney. He was in the graveyard across the road from the school when he heard the shots. "Father Gaffney heard them shoot in the air as they escaped in a van, and they shouted as though it was a great victory, he said."

Tóibín also talked to the then curate, the writer Michael Harding. "He had been standing at the door of the presbytery, he said. Yes, he had heard them. What did they sound like, I wanted to know. It was a wild howl, he said. Yes, but what exactly did it sound like? He did it for me in a high-pitched voice. 'Ya-hoo, ya-hoo, ya-hoo' they screamed when they killed the third Graham brother."

Darren Graham, the Lisnaskea Emmets GAA footballer who last week quit the game over sectarian abuse, is the son Cecil Graham was visiting when the IRA killed him. He is the embodiment of all the reasons why the idea of "two traditions" enshrined in the Belfast Agreement is a crude distortion of reality. Darren Graham's paternal grandfather was a member of the B Specials. His father, uncles and aunt were part-time members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, which allowed the IRA to justify its assault on the family. But his mother was Catholic and so is his two-year-old daughter.

On local sporting discussion boards, some people who knew Darren Graham well have expressed surprise at learning that he is a Protestant. "For him to describe himself as a Protestant," wrote one contributor to the Our Wee Country website, "is amazing, as throughout our friendship I don't recall him ever declaring himself as such. He was the product of a mixed marriage, and whilst he went to a state school I doubt he'd have had much religious instruction of the Reformation type . . . particularly after his father died."

Darren Graham didn't make a big issue of his religious affiliation. But that wasn't enough to stop other people doing it for him.

What was done to the Grahams - the methodical murders; the naked joy when they got Jimmy at last - left at least some people with a bad conscience. Cecil Graham's Catholic father-in-law told the inquest in 1983 that he was upset that in the two years since Cecil's death "none of the neighbours had extended sympathy or even mentioned the murder of his son-in-law". But the silence belied an unspoken disturbance.

Colm Tóibín, when he walked through the area three years after they got the third Graham brother, found that the dead Grahams were seen as uneasy, vengeful spirits still haunting the place.

As he was talking to two young Catholic men in Kinawley, he mentioned the spate of tragic car accidents in the locality, in which all the victims seemed to be young Catholic men. "People think it's revenge," one of them blurted out. When pushed, they explained that the older people maintained that the accidents were a sort of revenge for what was done to the Grahams. "God, you know, did I understand? It was God."

The unspoken guilt transmuted itself into irrational fear and it is not hard to see how that fear could in turn be channelled into the abuse of Cecil Graham's son.

Guilt for the murderous campaign against Border Protestants was kept at bay by the notion that the victims were off-duty UDR men and therefore mere ciphers of British imperialism.

Darren Graham had the temerity to punch through that easy tribal stereotype by playing GAA and not defining himself simply as a Protestant. It took the hate that dares not speak its name to make him one now.