“…a failure of empathy, of understanding, of insight into the lives of other people”

Empathy has been a bit of a theme for me this week. Personally I’ve been trying to use it in the positive, expansive bridge-building aspect, but it is not as though empathy does not already exist in Northern Ireland.

Within the present two tribe culture system, of course it exists. It is capable of tuning us into collaboration on anger, hatred and fear as well as having the capacity to help us to build a larger, connected and inclusive sense of who we are. It depends on our social choices.

We saw this at play in another sad remembrance this week. This time it was for a bombing which took place after the signing of the Belfast Agreement. The victims of the Omagh bomb, like so many other victims of the Troubles, got no justice.

Perhaps for this reason, the untimely remarks of the former Police Ombudsman yesterday calling for the police to account went down badly with several of the victims’ families:

“It doesn’t come easy for me to say this, but I think if you have a view which is informed by your experience of investigation then you do have certain duties and I think it was incumbent upon me to say this because the people of Omagh said to me ‘we need to be sure this never happens again’ and that did not happen.”

However, on Evening Extra last night The Sunday Times’ John Mooney pointed out that there had been no re-occurrence in 20 years in part because the PNSI had been effective in closing down the options of Republican dissidents.

Eilis O’Hanlon notes that victims come very low down on the state’s list of priorities:

…some of those who were made to wait longest to get what is rightfully theirs were among the most seriously injured in the blast.

Donna Marie McGillion, now 42, suffered burns to most of her body and was given only a 20% chance of survival. It took her 14 years to receive appropriate compensation, an experience she describes as “so, so traumatic and so long and drawn out.

Agree or disagree with Mrs O’Loan’s judgement, as a former office holder of the only public office enabled to investigate the past, she has a view: albeit one that within the wider picture is necessarily partial since only the Police came under her purview.

In a piece that is highly critical of the DUP’s handling of legacy cases Owen Polley notes a huge imbalance in the backlog of inquests into Troubles deaths:

The Belfast News Letter reported that 40 of these coroners’ inquests, out of a total of 92, will investigate the deaths of terrorists, including, for example, 8 IRA men who were killed by the SAS at Loughall as they tried to bomb the local police station. This unit of the Provisionals’ East Tyrone Brigade was responsible for a series of brutal sectarian murders in border areas of Northern Ireland.

The social marketing that pushed this select number of cases to the fore serves two purposes. One, it highlights a certain narrow interpretation of the highlights of the Troubles from the point of view of the most savage and professional of the various protagonists.

But the other effect of such political marketing is to polarise and alienate “out-tribe” people from the lives of those within that particular subset of victims, and resentment ensues on what has de facto become a hierarchy of victims.

Last week a friend was at a small meeting in the Fountain community in Derry. In the midst of all the contention, he asked one of the speakers, whose brother was killed on Bloody Sunday to tell the group who her brother was.

She recalled that at the funeral she’d been full of anger about what had happened until she looked across at the sheer grief of her mother. She determined at that moment that she could not see anyone else’s mother go through the same experience.

At that point, in the telling of an individual story, the negative effects of all that marketing fades. Something human and individual cuts through the polemicised detritus of Ireland’s longest period of sustained (and unsuccessful) violence in centuries.

Which brings me to this extraordinary account in the Belfast Telegraph of the funeral of one of those suspected (but who was never found guity in either criminal or civil proceedings) of being involved in the Omagh bombing, Seamus McKenna…

At the cemetery, dozens of ‘volunteers’ marched to the gravesite under commands in Irish and stood to attention. Among them was Seamus Daly, who drove the scout car into Omagh and collected McKenna when the bomb was planted.

There were so many of them lined up in front of the grave that they blocked out the McKenna family and all the other mourners who were forced to stand back. Their commander shouted: “Oglaigh, aire” (Volunteers, attention), and they stood motionless in front of the grave, staring at an Irish tricolour.

And then it happened. One of Seamus McKenna’s sisters moved towards them, slowly at first, and then gathered pace.

She reached out her arms and pushed two of them aside, knelt down at the grave, put her head in her hands and prayed.

It was such a simple act of defiance and it ruined the visual of their paramilitary parade. Kneeling and praying, she said it silently – enough of this posturing, enough of this pain, enough of this falseness. You don’t own this grave, we do.

She had seen two generations of her family ruined by the Troubles and seen thousands more suffer the same loss. And worse still, there was sadness, a deep, unspoken pain at what Seamus had done on a beautiful day in Omagh.

I left the graveyard with tears in my eyes, not for Seamus McKenna, but for all the unspoken pain that hung over this event. I gathered myself together by petting a Garda horse. I walked down the road – because of police roadblocks to prevent shots being fired over McKenna’s coffin we had to walk two miles to our cars. Just two feet ahead of me, still in his white shirt and black tie, was Seamus Daly and another one of the colour party.

Daly, who still owes the Omagh families £1.6m for his part in the bombing, was telling his comrade about the actions of McKenna’s sister. He was laughing about it, acting out how she had pushed volunteers aside to kneel at the grave. His friend looked embarrassed. “I know, I saw it,” he said.

In that moment I found some clarity, some explanation that I had been seeking for 15 years. A mind that could not put itself into the position of McKenna’s sister at the moment, that could not see what she was really saying, was a mind that could so easily plant a bomb in a busy shopping street in Omagh.

The answer, finally, was that there was no answer. This was not a political problem so much as it was a failure of empathy, of understanding, of insight into the lives of other people, a love for the iconography and history of a political movement, without any care for the people it is supposed to help.

I asked Daly if he was going up to the community centre, where the McKenna family and friends were gathering for tea and biscuits.

“Nah, I think we’ll head on,” said his friend. They knew they were not welcome, and so they walked off to their car.

Tea and sympathy for the dead are simply not enough. Nor is the recently risen politics of recrimination. We need a new (political) game design that can help us all build a shared, shareable understanding around a small set of necessary and sufficient actions.

So hope for a great sea-change/On the far side of revenge./Believe that a further shore/Is reachable from here./Believe in miracles/And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:/The utter, self-revealing/Double-take of feeling./If there’s fire on the mountain/Or lightning and storm/And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing/The outcry and the birth-cry/Of new life at its term.

The Cure at Troy, Sophocles, trans Seamus Heaney