Noel Whelan: Kingsmill row shows North’s failure to address the past
Sinn Féin MP’s gaffe underlines the need to do more to help the victims of the Troubles
‘Those killed in the Troubles were not Catholic or Protestant victims – they were human lives destroyed.’ Photograph: Getty Images
We have again been reminded this week that Northern Ireland’s past hasn’t gone away, you know. The pain of those injured and the pain of loss of the friends and families of those killed has an enduring capacity to confront politics with its failure to properly address the legacy of the conflict.
This week the past came back to haunt Sinn Féin at a particularly awkward moment– just when the party is in the middle of stage-managing a leadership change.
Sinn Féin’s efforts to make the handover from Gerry Adams to Mary Lou McDonald all about generational shift and tonal change has been undermined by the absurd antics of Barry McElduff MP, and by the inadequacy of the party’s response to what he did.
McElduff is not an insignificant figure in the party. He is an intelligent and skilful politician. He does like to entertain his own political audience, but his online antics last Thursday were frankly grotesque. The fact that he posted a clip of himself playacting with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre was grotesque.
Sinn Féin quickly apologised for the post, and described it as indefensible while simultaneously seeking to excuse it by characterising it as an inadvertence.
McElduff and Sinn Féin were apologising without insight. They were engaged in a public relations handling operation, hoping to get past the controversy. It didn’t work, and merely added to tensions in the increasingly toxic political atmosphere in Northern Ireland.
Hurt and harm
The political consequences of the McElduff affair pale, of course, by comparison to the hurt and harm he caused to the survivors and the families of the dead.
On January 5th, 1976, a minibus was transporting 16 workers from a textile factory in Glennane to their homes in south Armagh. Just after 5.30pm, four of the five Catholic workers on board had been dropped off, and then as the bus made it way through the Kingsmill crossroads men in combat uniform with blackened out faces standing on the road waved it down.
One of them with what was described as “a pronounced English accent” instructed the passengers to face the bus with their hands on the roof. He then asked: “Who is the Catholic?”
There is no reason why we should segregate the victims of the Troubles into Protestant and Catholic like their killers did
One of the workers, Richard Hughes, moved to identify himself. Two of his workmates, fearing they had been stopped by a loyalist gang intent on killing Hughes, put their hands on his hand in an attempt to dissuade him. When he stepped forward, however, he was told: “Get out of the way”; “Get down the road, and don’t look back.”
The gunmen then immediately opened fire on the 11 remaining workers. In all 138 rounds from various automatic weapons were fined. The shooting lasted less than a minute. One of the gunmen then walked among the dying men and shot each of them in the head with a pistol as they lay on the ground. Ten of them were killed but, miraculously, one of them, Alan Black, survived.
The IRA never admitted responsibility for the Kingsmill massacre. However, in 2011 a Historical Enquiries Team report found that members of the Provisional IRA carried out the attack. The weapons used were linked to 110 other attacks.
The shootings were said to have been in response to a loyalist shooting the night before, but the attack on the minibus had been planned weeks earlier.
When I wrote about Kingsmill here in mid-2016 at the time when new inquests were ordered, the piece, predictably, attracted some suggestions that I was only remembering “Protestant dead”. Instinctively defensive, I was tempted to write a “balancing” piece about some of the loyalist massacres, but then resisted the instinct.
There is no reason why we should feel the need to segregate the victims of the Troubles into Protestant and Catholic like their killers did. Those killed in the Troubles were not Catholic victims or Protestant victims – they were human lives destroyed. They are Northern Irish dead.
We should also resist the notion that any particular political tradition or political party represents one group of victims rather than another. Nobody has party affiliation in death. In remembering them we don’t need to pander to political fault lines.
What is striking as each anniversary of the various atrocities passes is how much remains to be done in tackling the needs of the victims of the Troubles.
In some cases these include complex health and social service needs. For some they include the need to know what happened to their loved ones, and who may have been responsible.
Above all else, they include a need for basic recognition and respect for what they have endured.
Work on addressing the legacy of the past, however, like so much else in Northern Ireland these days, remains stalled while politicians indulge themselves in the squabbles of the present.