Belfast Telegraph

It's a rotten society that extols gunmen and spurns victims

By Gail Walker

What do you do when the boot's on the other foot? This being Northern Ireland, it seems that the accepted custom is to kick your opponent in the symbols.

The decision of the Sinn Fein dominated Newry and Mourne council not to hold a full discussion on whether to rename a children's play park called after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh has hurt and angered unionists.

Let's be frank here: the decision is in effect an opening up of a cultural and civic front in a new cold war. As is the decision of Mid Ulster Council not to facilitate the selling and distribution of poppies in its buildings. Back into the sectarian trenches, lads!

We have been here before, of course. The Troubles didn't just start in 1969 with rioting and political meltdown. No, already the clock had been wound up very tight - the name of a bridge, the site of a university, what to call a new city. All in themselves relatively minor incidents, but enough to remind people that the "other" was out there, looking to exclude, ridicule and ignore.

Back then, it was unionists who held the upper hand, now it's nationalists. True, Tweedledum and Tweedledee may have merely changed hats, but look how these little spats turned out - 40 years of low-level civil war. The basic dynamic is still there, and who's to say that our idealogues' determination to prove a point at whatever cost won't lead back into outright carnage? The vast majority of us here know this. We don't want to refight in miniature the wars of the last century.

But that is what makes us - unionist, nationalist, Catholic and Protestant and none, who don't want to live in allotted political ghettoes - weak. Wanting to enjoy the dividends of peace (or at least of people not actively killing each other) we get on with the business of living. But are we allowed to get on our lives? No, we have to be provoked, cajoled, forced to choose sides. Bad memories dredged up; nerves set on edge.

Only the most ardent sadomasochist could have tuned into Stephen Nolan's TV show last week and not recoiled in despair and a kind of horror at the fingers-in-the-ears debate on the Newry decision. The same screeching noise we've been listening to all our lives. The levels of anger and hurt were genuinely disturbing. And where anger and hurt are, hatred is never too far behind.

Raymond McCreesh was caught red-handed with a weapon used in the sectarian Kingsmills massacre. No wonder Protestants are upset (and not just Protestants). But it's not all one-way traffic; only a few weeks ago, a new mural calling on people to join the UDA was painted in Carrick, obliterating street art designed around children's names. In The Second Coming, Yeats wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." And that's where the majority of us are. Lacking all conviction, lacking even the language and syntax to express our views without being seen as West Brits and Lundys.

Just saying that you want to live in peace and get on with your neighbour reveals you to be a pusillanimous pragmatist who, when the chips are down, can be corralled back into your proper place if a bit of pressure is applied. Extremists are what they are - they deserve to blamed, but so do we for our soggy spinelessness.

In 20 years of peace, we have not commemorated a single innocent victim of the Troubles. Not one. Yes, there's the odd memorial to mass atrocities such as Omagh, an RUC memorial garden, a couple of makeshift plaques, but what of the thousands mown down as they drove a bus, or manned a security hut, or went to church, or walked home through "enemy" territory? Where are their memorial parks? Their bands? The streets named after them? Where are the works of art, statues, conceptual art?

Could you imagine if we made a feature of every lonely spot where some poor soul breathed their last? Signposts, photos, flowers. And as darkness fell, powerful arc lights dazzling upon the place where they were lost. What would our towns, villages and countryside look like from space? Thousands of tealights stubbornly flickering. A bit ambitious, too much perhaps, but we need to shed more light on what happened here. The true extent of the terror and degradation that we all had to endure, and not just a handful of "combatants".

Where do the victims exist in our civic imaginations? Nowhere, that's where. That's the fault of all of us. Not wanting to rock the boat, we haven't insisted upon doing the right thing.

We've left that to the terror nostalgia junkies. If you look at our walls and listen to the songs in the pubs, you'd be forgiven for thinking the only people worth remembering were "freedom fighters" and self-appointed brigadiers. The men - and women - who often did terrible things to this community. That is something worth remembering.

Follow me on Twitter @ GWalker9

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