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It is right to remember the dead of 9/11, but fallen from our squalid 'war' deserve no less

Failure to publicly acknowledge 3,600 killed during Troubles is national disgrace, writes Gail Walker

Published 13/09/2016

Victims of the Troubles, like those killed in the Omagh bomb, should be acknowledged
Victims of the Troubles, like those killed in the Omagh bomb, should be acknowledged

The crowd hushed. The political leaders dignified. The civic leaders, the heads of the services, representing their constituents, their fallen colleagues. The air heavy with solemnity and meaning. The watching spectators moved to attend through respect; observing history, responding to the need to be part of a greater whole.

That was the United States remembering on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. That was New York - one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world - recalling its fallen citizens: fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.

While Hillary Clinton's semi-collapse was to grab many of the headlines, there could be no gainsaying the poignancy and depth of feeling of the occasion.

Nearly 3,000 people died on that one day when planes crashed into the Twin Towers. More than 3,600 died here in our 'Troubles', the horror spread murder across almost 40 years.

But just as in New York, every one of the deaths was someone's father, someone's mother, someone's sister, someone's brother, someone's son or daughter.

Each one of those deaths calls for remembering - an act of memory which 'Peace Process' Northern Ireland has scarcely afforded.

Our failure to give public utterance and meaning to those deaths should shame us. More, they should be a constant torture to our conscience. But our consciences seem to have a very thick skin judging by our failure to give respect and recognition.

The ceasefires were called in 1994. That's 22 years ago. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. That's 18 years ago. No matter how you look at it that is two decades of fudging, ignoring and refusing to face up to the terrible things that happened here.

Or look at it another way, that would be like Britain failing to honour the fallen of the First World War until the middle of the Second World War.

It is a national disgrace, a failure to publicly recognise Northern Ireland's fallen. Our politicians - once considered the extremes - find no problem to share money, power, title and position, but can't find a way to share public imaginative space. In other words, they can lead the way in everything except the areas that count - in our hearts and in our minds.

And let us not forget that acknowledgement and justice are supposed to lie at the heart of the Agreement, recognising the importance of "the suffering of victims of violence".

Who can honestly say that in 2016 that is the case? Do the victims ever get a look-in during the daily political grind of life on the Hill? Is it not the case that the issue has been studiously avoided because it might 'rock the boat'?

But how can we go forward without fully acknowledging the terrible things done, largely in our name. To 3,600 of our fellow citizens. Forget about victim commissioners and Historical Enquiry Teams. We need more than bureaucracy. We need acknowledgement.

I don't necessarily mean Gardens of Remembrance, or monuments. It may be that it is as simple as a day set aside for civic silence. It may be something as tangible as a calendar of names, something derived with the dignity of historical fact - as in the book Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea.

Certainly, we need a commission, with a fixed term and a short brief, to be set up simply to examine how 'remembrance' has been handled in other societies after conflict; to devise a way of acknowledging the hideous losses of the past which doesn't ascribe blame, pass judgment, or leave room for gauche and inappropriate triumphalism or demonisation. If we remember the dead at all, we remember them in batches. We remember the atrocities.

Embarrassingly, we remember the hurts to our own side more vividly and more readily, with greater ease, than those of 'the other side', though that is not to imply that we condone or excuse those atrocities. We are all capable of a bit more nuance than the stereotypes allow us.

Nonetheless, where do we have the civic room, the imaginative space for the RUC man - or, indeed, PSNI man - blown up when he turned on his ignition, the Protestant bundled into a black taxi in Library Street, the Catholic woman beaten to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Where is the space for the relatives and friends of dead combatants?

Where do they go?

But that public facility for those directly affected, bereaved or injured, is just one aspect.

What about those dead who have no one left to remember them? Eventually, that will be the case for all the dead of the Troubles, just as it will be for those of 9/11 and every other calamity.

But what keeps us remembering is the simple fact that public memory has its own value which does not expire - it reminds us of the consequences of recklessness in our dealings with our fellow citizens.

Our 'war dead' may have become essentially private griefs, involving the families of those killed and, in effect, nothing to do with us. But, in fact, those deaths have absolutely everything to do with us, and especially with anyone who claims to lead us now and in the future. Those who were the killers of our dead of the Troubles belong to whatever mode of 'justice' is expedient at any given time. None of us may ever see justice in the sense of 'punishment' for wrongdoing. I don't know what the solution to that problem is.

But remembering is not about justice. The whole point of it is simply to acknowledge the loss, the hurt, the deep wound. It is where the dead of Darkley, Loughgall, Kingsmill, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Loughinisland, Claudy, Enniskillen, Greysteel, Ormeau Road, Shankill Road, rise up and meet each other on all our behalfs, and call us out for having let things get so bad, so uncontrolled, so out of hand that, as John Hewitt said, "the whole tarnished map is stained and torn,/not to be read as pastoral again".

Hewitt, in fact, advised against even the use of the word 'remember' because, he thought, we couldn't be trusted with that notion, remembering, as we do 1916 and 1690 with equally ill-considered fervour ... He suggested that we "bear in mind" instead.

"Bear In Mind These Dead".

That can't be beyond us, surely. All of us. All our dead people.

Belfast Telegraph

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