Courage of Kingsmills Victims Defied Sectarian Divide

Much ink has been spilled about the sorry Barry McElduff/Kingsmills loaf saga. Susan McKay’s analysis in Tuesday’s Irish Times is one of the most insightful, but bleak, contributions. It’s worth reading her full text, which brings her to this conclusion:

The absence of reconciliation has never been more starkly apparent, and as usual, those most hurt in the past are hurt again.

One paragraph in McKay’s article jumped out for me, because though tragic, it demonstrated for me that there is some hope for us – in the example of the Protestant men who tried to save their Catholic workmate:

There is no doubt about the moral calibre of the men who were set upon at Kingsmill. The late Richard Hughes, the only Catholic on the bus that night, never forgot that when the gunmen demanded that the Catholics step forward, the Chapman brothers, Reggie and Walter, on either side of him, each placed a hand on his arm to stop him from doing so. There had been a spate of loyalist murders in the previous days, leaving three of the Reavey family and three of the O’Dowds dead. [Survivor] Alan Black said that the men would have suspected this was another such attack.

McKay wrote about Kingsmills in her superb 2008 book Bear in Mind These Dead, a harrowing account of the legacy of the Troubles which brings home their overwhelming futility.

Bear in Mind These Dead reminds us that the Troubles were, more than anything, a waste of life. We need to remember that.

But we also need to remember the people who, like the Chapman brothers, were caught up in the Troubles and faced evil with superhuman courage.

As Prof Pete Shirlow has recently said – at the Sinn Féin ard fheis, no less – we need to remember the stories of people that did not succumb to sectarianism:

Throughout the conflict we had evidence on a near daily basis of people proving that the sectarian divide was artificial. But we rarely or ever recognise that. We have silenced the narrative around those who, during the days of violence, aimed to maintain relationships across the sectarian divide.

Of course, what the Chapman brothers did was more than maintain relationships – it was to try and preserve the life of the so-called ‘other.’ In her account of Kingsmills in Bear in Mind These Dead, McKay described it this way (p. 78, emphasis mine): ‘The two young men on either side of him, brothers Reginald and Walter Chapman, each put out their hands to try and hold him back, to protect him, to keep him among friends.’

Elsewhere, I have reviewed a book by a Ugandan priest and theologian, Emmanuel Katongole, The Journey of Reconciliation. Katongole draws his theology from the practice of courageous souls in Africa, women and men like the Chapman brothers. Among the examples he shares are those of people who, during the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Burundi, refused to divide themselves, even when faced with the prospect of violence and unspeakable death. This is one such story from Burundi (p. 84):

In the early hours of the morning in the autumn of 1997, a militia group … attacked Buta, a high school seminary in Burundi. They roused the students from their sleep and ordered them to separate, Hutu on one side and Tutsi on the other. Three times the order was given, but the students refused to stand apart. The commander then ordered the rebels to open fire. Students fell, and those left standing tried to escape. In all, forty students were killed. One of the students who had been wounded ran to the rector’s house, and called for the rector to open the door for him. When the rector opened the door, the boy dashed inside the small house, and gasping for breath said: “Father, we have won. They told us to separate and we refused. We have won.” Then he collapsed and died.

These students had already been reconciled with their so-called enemies, and their witness pointed to a different way, a better future.

That may be cold comfort for those left behind mourning the dead. But it reminds us that with so many lost lives – whether it is in Northern Ireland or elsewhere – reconciliation has not always been absent.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com