A good friend whose political views differ from mine was also in attendance on the evening before. He wondered why I did not engage in the discussion. I explained that had I done so, my comments would have presented as… “but, what about..?
Until the victims of Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy are ready to say: ‘What about Claudy and Ballykelly’ and the victims of Claudy and Ballykelly feel they can say: “What about Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy,’ will we be where we need to be in dealing with the past?”
The meeting in an Cultúrlann Derry was convened to discuss justice and legacy. The panel was made up solely of spokespersons representing victims of atrocities in Ballymurphy, on Bloody Sunday, Derry and the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan. Within a large audience, I was one of three, maybe four, who would not identify as nationalist or republican.
I had been in the hearing of victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland before; on the walls overlooking Guildhall Square when Prime Minister David Cameron MP acknowledged the innocence of the victims killed by British Forces in January 1972.
On a stage erected for the occasion representatives of the families read out the names of the innocent. Not long afterwards, an individual, emotions and adrenaline clearly charged by the occasion, shouted to some RTE reporters who stood in the vicinity:
“We stuck it to the Brits, today.”
His words gave a particular slant to the pursuit of justice not dissimilar to a relative who expressed a desire to see a soldier ‘rot in a cell with the keys thrown away’ at the meeting in an Cultúrlann. Such expressions of hurt are not owned exclusively by any one section of the community.
Feelings generated by the comments and raw emotions of individuals and family members are challenging on many levels – emotionally, morally and politically- particularly if you have lived throughout a period of sectarian and political killings, collusion, passive endorsement of decisions as to who should live or die and witnessed the individual, societal and economic impact of sustained targeted and retaliatory violence.
Memories of a family doctor in tears as the news of a young relative killed in the Claudy bombing; the impact of the death of a young mother collecting census forms; the effect on pupils sitting in front of me whose family members were killed or maimed remain long in the memory.
Colleagues teaching within a different ethos in our segregated system of education have similar experiences. That ‘war’ was not fought in foreign fields and was always close. When only one atrocity is highlighted the temptation is to say ‘what about?’; the legacy remains and continues to gain fresh traction.
To coin a phrase: “It hasn’t gone away.”
The erection of Parachute Regiment flags in different areas of Londonderry close to the 50th commemoration of Bloody Sunday has invited robust condemnation and calls for their removal across the political divide. The vast majority of the population judge it unnecessary, hurtful and deeply insensitive and rightly so. Not only wrong-headed it also robs the dead to make a politically ineffective point.
In 2019, condemnation was not so widespread.
In August of that year, Parachute Regiment flags appeared on lampposts at a time when republican and nationalist groups were commemorating the ‘Battle of the Bogside.’ It coincided with the Annual Relief of Derry celebrations and a number of visiting DUP elected representatives deemed it appropriate to pose under a Parachute Regiment banner. That one of those, DUP Junior Minister Gary Middleton, MLA is now calling for the removal of similar flags evidences some kind of progress.
Whilst the DUP were acting as they did in 2019, there were others within the community engaging to bring down the flags and ascertain the reasoning for the display. The motivation was not universal but there were those who saw the flags as a means of bringing attention to what they see as a hierarchy when it comes to acknowledging victims of our war; higher profile and priority given to some atrocities as opposed to others. There is a deeply held view that some representatives who call loudest for transparency, inclusivity and truth are loathe to make the same call of former combatants with whom they share common purpose and aspirations.
Those, who post the flag, may, as they do, feel there is a point to be made but if so, it is forfeit to the insensitivity of their methods
This should not mask that without truth and inclusive information recovery for all, dealing with the past is compromised; reconciliation is uneven with transformation delayed. Acknowledgement that there was a better way to achieve progress is lacking.
To contend that this will happen over time is to ignore the power of ‘knowledge in the blood’ as generational hurt is inherited indirectly along within closed narratives, lacking in any reflection or healing.
Alongside those who commemorate Bloody Sunday there are others who live with not knowing whilst hoping for something else; some who walk streets in Derry and elsewhere where they pass by former combatants who took the life of a family member. They bear the pain silently feeling their loss diminished but choosing not to let the past define them.
What they recall could have happened on a Sunday for we have had many ‘bloody Sundays.’ In 1971, 7 British soldiers, 5 civilians, 1 member of the IRA and 1 Unionist politician were killed on Sundays that continue to cast a long shadow.
There are similar statistics for other Sundays across the years of conflict. Individuals of different denominations murdered going to or leaving church had a particular resonance.
Many in Northern Ireland have shared the experience of violence but not in the same way. There are many pasts and many narratives; differing views of who or what is right and who or what is wrong; whether or not the war was justified. The champions for these compete to dominate the political present through the past.
As a consequence, we live in the past whilst trying to use the present to build a better future.
We cannot achieve both through doing what we do.
As preparations continue for Bloody Sunday 50th Commemoration events, posts are appearing to prompt recall of the deaths of two young RUC members a few days before 30 January 1972. We are invited to consider the context of the events which ensued. By context we seem to mean an understanding of why things happened implying the responsibility of the ‘ other’ without any acknowledgement of the extent to which the whole community may have contribution – either through omission or commission.
Should we be asking of each other: ‘ What have we done to ourselves and how do we ensure it never happens again.?”
We need to unravel the partisan political and communal web woven around all of the dead and injured; otherwise notions of hierarchy, selective justice and flags will continue.
The younger generation deserves a better legacy than what is currently on offer.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.