Resisting voice of unreason in wake of killings

 

A Dáil debate made clear the dangers to our political system posed by Bloody Sunday, writes GARRET FitzGERALD

I PREFER not to comment here on recent events in the party I once led – beyond noting that there was nothing surprising about the decision not to disclose the actual voting figures. That was also what happened after my resignation in 1987, and no one has ever known by what margin Alan Dukes was elected leader.

But reticence about Fine Gael’s internal affairs is not in fact the main reason for deciding to devote this week’s article to the events in Derry 38 years ago. This is rather because, for many people old enough to have vivid personal memories of the killings, the vindication of those murdered on that Sunday takes precedence over current political matters.

Four months before Derry, in the immediate aftermath of mass detentions of nationalists, I had been asked by a moderate unionist minister to come to Belfast to discuss with him and subsequently with the Stormont government’s cabinet secretary, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, as to whether some solution might be found to the stand-off between that government and the SDLP.

And so for several weeks I acted as an intermediary, to the point where it seemed momentarily that the Northern prime minister, Brian Faulkner, might be prepared to concede powersharing in government. However, provoked by the intensity of the IRA bombing campaign, Faulkner backed off, choosing instead provocatively to sign internment orders for over 200 of those who had been detained several weeks earlier.

On the Sunday evening of the Derry killings, I rang Simon Winchester of the Guardian at the City Hotel in Derry. He told me the shootings had been unprovoked. I rang the Guardian’s London office where a sub-editor read me Simon’s account. I then phoned the paper’s editor, Alastair Hetherington, in Manchester to urge him in his editorial to call for an impartial inquiry into the killings – the only thing that might help to damp down what was bound to be an explosive and highly dangerous public reaction. Unfortunately I made the clumsy mistake of revealing that I had been read the content of Winchester’s account – which did not please him.

Three days later, with Tom O’Higgins, Alexis FitzGerald and Michael Sweetman (a young and brilliant party activist tragically killed shortly afterwards in the Staines air crash), I drove to Derry for the funeral. We were met at the Border by a friend of John Hume. After the funeral we were brought to an SDLP house for a meal. But when afterwards I brought plates into the kitchen a woman said to me “Isn’t it great that so many are joining?” “Joining what?”, I asked, bemused. “The IRA, of course,” another woman answered. It was clear that the killings were already destabilising the North – and our State also, as we saw on returning to Dublin. When we stopped en route we saw on the news the British embassy on Merrion Square in flames, as a crowd cheered on the arsonists. Might they then turn to Leinster House, I wondered, and if gardaí had not felt able to save the embassy, could they, together with the few soldiers there, protect our parliament?

On the previous day there had been statements in the Dáil by the taoiseach and opposition leaders, but on the day after the funerals, which had been a day of mourning, there was a full nine-hour debate.

In his opening remarks in that debate the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, warned that people proclaiming to be members of illegal organisations had gone around intimidating people and seeking to give the impression that these organisations were now to have a free hand. They would, he warned, play on the sympathies and emotions of ordinary people.

The fifth speech was by Neil Blaney, an Independent since he had been arrested and charged after the Arms Crisis two years earlier. We should do what any red-blooded people would do, he said: stand up and tell Mr Heath and his government that we were getting our Army on full stand-to. We want the Army on the Border, he said, and if the Dáil gave the right leadership, the Six Counties were now ours for the taking.

That speech had a profound effect on the rest of the debate, with many voicing their concerns about the dangers to our democratic system if emotions were allowed to determine the direction of our policy. My own remarks about what I described as Neil Blaney’s “war policy” provoked him to describe me as a liar and a “ranting halfwit”.

During that debate a dangerous boil was lanced. The solidarity of our democratic politicians won through, against the tide of emotion about the Derry atrocity that could so easily have overwhelmed us.

Understandably, reactions in the North were less rational. Nationalists did not feel part of a democratic system that they had an interest in defending. And it was their children, their siblings who had been murdered – and then stigmatised as terrorists on the false testimony of those who had killed them. Thirty-eight years is a long time to be denied justice. But at last the slur on the Derry demonstrators has been eradicated by the British prime minister in a speech endorsed by the DUP leader that will go a long way towards completing the reconciliation of the peoples of our two islands.

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