Only peace lets us hear IRA apology

 

'We held services for everybody: soldiers, IRA, all the dead. Unfortunately I was a little bit ahead of my time. A lot of people in my own church didn't approve of what we were doing. I was asked by my bishop if I would confine my peace activities to my day off."

The words are those of the Rev Joseph Parker whose son, Stephen, was killed by an IRA bomb on Bloody Friday, July 21st, 1972. The 14-year-old schoolboy had been trying to warn people, in a busy row of shops off the Cavehill Road, about a suspicious car parked outside.

His mother described him as "bright and lively with a keen interest in music". He played the with the Ulster Youth Orchestra. His father was only able to identify the remains by his hands and by a scout belt he had been wearing at the time.

Stephen Parker's story - and that of his father - are recorded in Lost Lives, the book put together by David McKittrick and a number of other journalists in Northern Ireland. It is still the most moving and important memorial to all those who died in more than 30 years of violence.

The year 1972 was the worst of times: 496 people were killed, 258 of whom were civilians, or "non-combatants" as the IRA prefers to describe them. Thirteen of these wholly innocent victims died in Derry on Bloody Sunday, nine in Belfast on Friday July 21st when the IRA exploded 20 bombs across the city. It is reasonable to argue that many of the other deaths which occurred in subsequent years were the result of the bitterness engendered by these two atrocities. That enduring legacy of unforgiving suspicion is still with us and more - much more - needs to be done to lay it to rest.

Then, as now, the reaction to the horrific images of Bloody Friday, of body parts being shovelled into black plastic bags, were mixed. The Rev Joseph Parker, like many of Northern Ireland's heroically forgiving victims, wanted his son's death to have some meaning ."If we could feel that it would help bring an end to all this, it would be easier to bear" he said.

In November 1972 he conducted a service outside Belfast City Hall for all those who, at that time, had died in the Troubles: 436 white crosses were planted on the lines outside the building. Not everybody appreciated the work of the Witness for Peace movement which Joseph Parker founded after his son's death. In 1974 he and his wife, with their two remaining children, moved to Vancouver.

Thirty years on and the IRA issued a statement on Tuesday offering its apologies and condolences to the families of those who died on Bloody Friday, and to relatives of all "non-combatants" who have suffered as a result of its campaign of violence.

The timing of the statement is almost as significant as the words themselves. While leaders of the republican movement have in the past been prepared to admit that Bloody Friday was a mistake, they have also, for the most part, tried to put some gloss on it - that civilian deaths were unintentional, that warnings were given and so on. In his memoirs, the late Seán MacStiofáin, Provisional IRA chief of staff, described the operation as "a concerted sabotage offensive" intended to demonstrate the IRA was capable of planting a large number of bombs at once.

As always, it is worth remarking how far we have travelled.

Inevitably, the reaction to Tuesday's statement by the IRA has divided almost entirely along community lines. Unionists, for the most part, have dismissed it as a cynical ploy, designed to ease pressure on Sinn Féin at a time when the party is facing hard questions about the IRA's ceasefire.

David Trimble wants Tony Blair to redefine what constitutes a ceasefire. Why is the IRA's cessation deemed to be intact, given the evidence of episodes like Colombia? He has warned the British Prime Minister that he must not use this week's statement as an excuse to duck these questions. At his shoulder stands Jeffrey Donaldson, threatening Armageddon and demanding Sinn Féin ministers should be excluded from the power-sharing executive.

Both Dublin and London have welcomed the IRA's statement as another important step along the road to peace. Many nationalists point to the fact that the apology has come so soon after Alex Maskey's laid a wreath at the Cenotaph in Belfast, and see both as evidence of the republican movement's growing awareness of the need to take a more proactive role in building reconciliation.

Listening to the victims of violence, the continuing terrible pain of people like Jim Dixon who was injured in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing, I am acutely aware of how insensitive it must be when those of us who have not suffered talk about "moving forward".

But the harsh truth, as the Rev Joseph Parker saw in the days following his son's death on Bloody Friday 30 years ago, is that this is the choice facing both communities in Northern Ireland: to bear witness for peace by trying to accept the good faith of the other side's stumbling efforts to say "Sorry" - or to retreat into the armed tribal trenches of the past.