Belfast Telegraph

Colin Horner's murder proves that, 25 years after ceasefires, peace is still a work in progress

Brutal Bangor slaying is a reminder of the dark places where violence spirals unchecked

By Gail Walker

A man is gunned down in a Sainsbury's car-park while out with his three-year-old son on a sunny Sunday afternoon in front of horrified shoppers - and we are supposed to do what, exactly? Mouth empty platitudes of condemnation and get on with our lives?

Or follow the tortured story of how this "brigadier" argued with that "brigadier", or how some leading loyalist had a go at some other leading loyalist on Facebook, or how one faction has broken away from another faction, all the while unravelling claim and counter-claim. As if working out some tortuous detail will - after a lightning flash and a roll of thunder - make "sense" of the murder of Colin Horner.

We are caught between two attitudes - both of which give our remaining gunmen and murderers a bye-ball. Our apathy allows them to continue. Our "trying to understand the context" rationalises and - just as during the Troubles - glamorises the paramilitaries and their acts.

True, the fact that Colin Horner was slain in front of his young son adds another element of inhumanity to the act, but reading the condemnations of politicians and civic leaders was an exercise in tired cliches and futility.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire said: "The community in Bangor and all those involved will understandably be deeply shocked by this horrendous murder."

One MLA says the incident has "sent shockwaves" through the community. Another says that it is "shocking". You can ad lib the other adjectives used: "brutal", "senseless", "cowardly".

Maybe it is all our civic leaders can do. Sometimes things have to be said even if they are unoriginal, trite and, yes, have been said many times before.

But what the murder of Colin Horner shows is that, nearly a quarter of century after the ceasefires and 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, we have a very imperfect "peace".

This may sound rather shocking, but in some ways what we have in reality is a fancy ceasefire. And this may also sound rather shocking, but it's no less true for that - for many people internecine feuding doesn't really count.

Condemned, certainly. But felt deeply? The sort of bloodshed that keeps us awake at night? No, we have mentally drawn a cordon sanitaire around such murders - they are just a minor item on the bill of peace.

And not just loyalist feuds. Some mysterious killing in Dublin of a "leading dissident" doesn't unsettle us much either.

It's not nice when it happens at a shopping centre, but the attitude of many is reminiscent of a certain mentality during the Troubles.

So many hundreds of those murdered back then were working-class people, strolling unwittingly into the path of a bullet, or bomb. Call it bad moral luck, or happenstance, or whatever. For many others in leafy suburbs it might as well have been happening on another planet.

Understandable, perhaps, if not particularly noble. But, at the end of the day, it is wrong both morally and practically. In our cynical world, once we give the inch, the mile will inevitably follow.

Once we start looking at some murders with a knowing wink, we endanger the safety of all of us.

We will read much about Colin Horner over the next few days. But, for all that, Colin Horner had a right to life. An absolute one. It is not up to others to pass sentence on him. Only the state has a right to convict anyone of anything. His young son has now been handed a life sentence of trauma. The effect of violence has been passed on to another generation.

Nancy Soderberg, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, said recently that society in Northern Ireland "was as divided as it was before", though she added "not by violence, which is a major accomplishment".

She said it was time for a "generational shift in the peace process". She is totally right.

At Stormont, deadlock prevails. Our political system still primarily revolves around the old binaries: unionist/nationalist, Protestant/Catholic, us/them.

This week, on his Radio Ulster show, Stephen Nolan has commenced his masterly series of pre-election interviews. Like a gift that keeps on giving, day after day will bring an exposure of barmy fiscal policies.

You can almost hear the scrawl of the pencil on the back of an envelope as our parties pretend there is more to them than the border. Which is of course true - there is goading the other side as well.

Peace and normal politics, how are you? At the end of May 2017, we are a place divided - our school system, our patterns of housing. Given the right - if totally wrong - circumstances it is still possible for young people - nominally born into peace, mark you - never to have any engagement with "the other side". Not to mention the more genteel sectarianism of the suburbs.

We may have made progress in the last two decades. Northern Ireland is a better place for the absence of low-level civil war. There is less hatred and greater tolerance. In our headlong rush to becoming a more consumerist, more cosmopolitan society, thousands are, in their day-to-day lives, letting go of the old grudges and hatreds. We are one of the top cities to visit - who would have thought that 20 years ago?

But it is still a very fragile, very imperfect peace. We are still not a political culture truly changed. The tectonic plates for violence are still there, moving, it seems, at a barely susceptible pace at times.

We congratulate ourselves that it is different, that the old dinosaurs are fading into the background. Perhaps.

But we would do well to remember that just because you look young, doesn't mean that you can't think and act like your fathers and forefathers.

The murder of Colin Horner shows that there are still many dark places in our country where violence and hatred can grow unchecked. Where despite the respite of peace, the wars still go on.

And we ignore that at our peril.

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