Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Two decades on from the IRA ceasefire how have things changed for Cathy McCann who lost her father to the Troubles?

Painful memory: Cathy McCann with a photograph of her father John
Cathy McCann
Cathy McCann

Twenty years ago this weekend the republicans called off their terror campaign. Ivan Little finds out what has changed in the interval from five people caught up in the violence.

The graffiti on the Ormeau Road in Belfast which gloated about the IRA killing of two top loyalists 20 years ago has lasted longer than many sceptics believed the Provos' ceasefire, which was announced a month later, would prevail.

The writing on the wall on the corner of Essex Grove boasted about the shooting of loyalists Raymond Elder and Joe Bratty further up the Ormeau Road.

Republicans ordered the painting-over of the "Elder and Bratty had to die" message just hours after it went up. But two decades on, it's still clearly visible.

Observers said the murders of Bratty and Elder, who were suspected of involvement in the slaying of five Catholics at Graham's bookies in 1992, were seen as the Provos "taking care of unfinished business" – killing two hated men just before the ceasefire came into effect.

But, proving that 20 years is a short time in the politics of death, Bratty and Elder are still seen as part martyrs, part heroes in the loyalist community.

And on the 20th anniversary of their deaths loyalists erected a plaque in memory of them in the Annadale area of south Belfast.

Now the anniversary markers are turning their attention to another significant date. For this Sunday, it will be two decades since the IRA announced the ceasefire which was called off in February 1996, but renewed the following year.

Violence hasn't disappeared completely, of course, with the threat from dissident republicans still causing the police concern, along with loyalist feuds and interface clashes.

But the voices of the victims of 30 years of the Troubles are all-too-often overlooked as the milestones in the peace process are remembered: one such is Cathy McCann.

Cathy has been doubly touched by the violence. Her father, John Gallagher, was one of the first victims of the conflict, having been shot dead by the B Specials in Armagh in August 1969. Then, 21 years later, Cathy was lucky to survive an IRA bomb-attack, which killed three police officers and a nun near the city.

Yet, in spite of it all (or perhaps because of it), Cathy, who calls herself an "eternal optimist" has become an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process following the 1994 cessation and works with the WAVE Trauma Centre, the charity which offers care and support to people bereaved, or injured, in the Troubles.

The Historical Enquiries Team issued a report about her father's killing last year and her 72-year-old mother, Jean, died in March unhappy with their findings.

"She brought us up not to be bigoted or biased against anyone," said Cathy.

Cathy, who was a social worker at the time of the IRA bomb-attack, was a passenger in Sister Catherine Dunne's car in July 1990 when it was caught in the landmine blast which killed three police officers on the Killylea Road in Armagh.

"I was injured, but I survived and though the memories are always with me, you have to go on with your life and getting involved with WAVE has helped me. I got my mother to come on board, too," says Cathy.

At one point in her life before the blast, Cathy emigrated to California, "because I didn't want to live here anymore", but she stayed for only six months before coming home.

Four years after the first IRA ceasefire, Cathy voted yes for the Good Friday Agreement – even though it meant the early release of the men who had been convicted of the 1990 bombing which almost killed her.

"I wanted a better environment for my children and there's no doubt that how we are living now is a lot better than it used to be. I couldn't imagine returning to the way we were."

Republicans claim there are still elements within the PSNI who are still implacably opposed to the 1994 ceasefire and the peace process that was built in its wake.

One strategist, who worked closely with the police, but who didn't want to be named said he believed the IRA only introduced their ceasefire because they were on the brink of defeat.

He says: "By 1994, the security forces and the intelligence services had almost completely annihilated the Provisionals. They had boxed them in by infiltrating them at a high level. I am convinced the IRA had no option other than to call a ceasefire, because they realised they weren't going to win the war."

The IRA ceasefire was followed in October 1994by a similar cessation of violence by the UVF, the UDA and the Red Hand Commando.

Most of the men who took part in the Combined Loyalist Military Command press conference to announce the ceasefire are either dead, or no longer loyalist representatives.

But William 'Plum' Smith, a former loyalist prisoner who chaired the news conference is still actively involved in community work and helping other ex-prisoners.

He says: "We knew the IRA were going to call a ceasefire. The ordinary people mightn't have realised it, but from our negotiations with the two governments it was clear that the IRA were working towards the ceasefire.

"What wasn't certain was if it could hold or if we could deliver. And, while the past 20 years haven't been free of violence, it's more dangerous to live in Dublin or Limerick nowadays.

"We would like to be further on after 20 years, but we appreciated that peace wasn't going to come overnight. Despite the hiccups, we are making progress.

"Some people believed that you could just turn the tap of war off and the next day you would have full peace, but that was never on. I'm just glad the ceasefires have lasted for 20 years. There were many times when the whole thing could have gone belly up.

"The vast majority of people here don't want to know anything about the conflict. They want to move on."

Jeffrey Donaldson, who was in the Ulster Unionist Party in 1994, walked away from the Good Friday Agreement on the day it was signed in Stormont in 1998 and he later joined the DUP.

He admitted he was suspicious about the ceasefire at the outset, having heard the announcement as he drove on the M1 motorway.

"It came as a bolt from the blue. I hadn't expected it to happen. I was sceptical about the motive behind it but I am glad 20 years later we have moved on a long way. Northern Ireland is hopefully a better place than it was in 1994, but there's still a lot to do to copper-fasten the peace process."

Mr Donaldson said the move from peace building to reconciliation still had to be completed, but he added that his initial scepticism about the ceasefire had largely been assuaged.

"What we didn't know was whether the IRA decision was tactical or strategic, if it was going to be short-term, or long-lasting. I think initially there may have been a degree of the tactical, but over the years we have held our feet to the fire on issues like decommissioning and I think republicans have come to realise that violence is not the way to resolve our differences."

He says it was only thanks to the efforts of many good people here that the province had been able to avoid the cataclysmic situation that has been seen in other parts of the world.

" But clearly there is still a big debate about what happened during the Troubles. And that's why we need to resolve the outstanding issues and move to the next level."

Former Methodist President the Rev Harold Good has been at the very heart of the peace process which followed the IRA ceasefire 20 years ago. Along with his friend Fr Alec Reid, he witnessed the IRA decommissioning their weapons.

He heard the news of the ceasefire when he was travelling between Donegal and Kesh and turned to his son and said, "We have turned a page of history here."

Rev Good compared the peace process to a chart at the end of a hospital bed, with a series of peaks and troughs. "At the moment, we seem to be in a trough and we just hope and trust and pray that we will move out of it. In many ways the rows over health care, education and budgets are normal politics.

"But what makes it different here is that the disputes become tribalised and we are stymied from moving forward, but I don't despair because I don't think anyone wants to go back to where we were either to the conflict or to direct rule."

Rev Good said he hoped to see something more positive in Northern Ireland than the fear of the alternative. "We need a new attitude across the board where people can respect each other and work together to find agreement."

Mr Good said politicians here had a duty not to let down the people who voted in the referendum in favour of the Good Friday agreement

"They mustn't allow the naysayers, the doubters and the dissidents to dictate the pace because they are unrepresentative of the total community, but they seemed to be listened to more than the rest of the people.

"I feel very humbled to have had a part in the journey. To have been trusted by people across the spectrum was the greatest experience I could have ever had."

Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh, who was in the Maze prison in August 1994, says the ceasefire announcement came as a shock to the men behind bars.

He says: "Despite what people think, we were not consulted. Admittedly, you would have had to have been a blind man not to see that something was coming, but the announcement was a huge step. And, looking back, you can almost forget how seismic a decision it was.

"I had my concerns, but we were briefed and I came to support the initiative. People slowly got their heads around the rationale behind it. Everybody knew as we talked and thought about it, that it was going be a quite difficult and tortuous process and that's exactly how it turned out.

"There's still very many things wrong with society, but I don't buy this line from the extremes on both sides that nothing has changed. Of course it has.

"I have a young family and they don't know what discrimination is. They've never seen a British soldier and they've never been arrested because of where they come from, or because of their names. Things have changed drastically for the better."

Twenty years ago, Gary Donnelly was the organiser of Sinn Fein in the Creggan in Derry, but now he's an Independent councillor in the new supercouncil in the north west.

Initially, he backed the ceasefire moves, because he was convinced the IRA leadership must have got something substantial from the Government in return. But his support evaporated and he quit Sinn Fein in 1998.

"To me, it seems that the movement was defeated by its leadership," he says, adding that pledges that there'd never be a return to Stormont and slogans like "Not a bullet, not an ounce" looked hollow now. Donnelly also questioned how much of a dividend the peace process had really brought in its wake.

"In Derry, 20 years on, there's no motorway, no enhanced university. We have a second-class rail system; unemployment is still bad and on the wider picture there's no Irish language act, but anyone who speaks up is labelled a dissident and anti-peace."

Optimism tempered with caution...

The worldwide reaction to the IRA ceasefire announcement in 1994 was one of cautious optimism.

Television channels around the globe descended on Belfast and broadcast jubilant scenes live from the Falls Road.

The announcement was the top news story on American TV station ABC, with journalist Richard Gisberg telling US viewers that while the ceasefire "brought joy to Catholics, it was viewed with deep suspicion by loyalists".

Writing in the New York Times, John Darton, commented that, "Although many hurdles remain, the ceasefire was the most helpful step towards peace in 25 years" and a "profound turning point in a bloody and painful chapter in Irish history".

Prime Minister John Major, said that the statement was "very welcome indeed", but complained that it should be "clear and unambiguous" that violence was over for good.

Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds said that he "accepted the IRA statement as implying a permanent ceasefire".

A front page headline in the Irish Independent, accompanied by a pic of a smiling young child embracing a soldier, stated, 'It's Over for Good'.

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