Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

The Disappeared: Every tragic case of our past must be remembered

Tragic day: survivor of Abercorn bombing

This week it is the Disappeared. The long-dead making their presence felt again. They come as ghosts, out of blurry black and white photographs.

Last week we went back to Greysteel and its massacre; we walked through the Rising Sun bar again, smelt the sulphur. Days before that we were on the Shankill, waiting for the bomb to explode once more, and all those lives to be changed irrevocably and forever.

In a place obsessed with anniversaries, we're now faced with the problem of how to remember those who lost their lives in what we called, with ludicrous understatement, 'The Troubles'.

Northern Ireland, at times, seems little more than a bloodstained map with barely a stretch of road without its own horror to remember. Out driving, the names loom up like tombstones: Ballykelly, Enniskillen, Darkley, Kingsmills, Loughinisland, Ballygawley, Omagh...

It's hard to think of a hamlet, a village, a townland, a provincial centre, a city street untouched by our neighbourly civil wars.

Ours is a place where many fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbours met their ends years before their naturally allotted time. Their stories should weigh heavy in our minds.

Of course, many try to blot out the horror and grief of those years, to develop a form of amnesia, of blessed forgetfulness. They develop a blind faith in living for today.

And yet we have a duty to those who died to remember. Their voices should not be ignored. But do we remember as a people? Amazingly, after 20 years of 'peace', it seems the answer is no.

Yes, those who died for 'the cause' get their memorials. And, grim as it is to say, we remember the places of mass death. They're impossible to look the other way from. Who wasn't moved by the recent Shankill and Greysteel anniversaries? The dignity of the survivors and the rawness of their grief after all these years cannot help but soften the most brutalised of hearts.

Yet there are many who will never get the opportunity to speak to the world about their grief because their loved-ones died in ones or twos – the UDR man in his shop, the Catholic picked up by a black taxi not 200 yards from this office, the cabbie whose fare was the man who murdered him, the woman who shopped too near the bomb, the man painting his living room.

They lie among the pages of Lost Lives, in the brown files of the Troubles' dead in this newspaper's library. They're recalled only by the loved ones who still miss them, and marvel that the world went on turning. They, too, need to earn a place in our collective memory. Their deaths need to be accorded a resonance, a sense of ritual commemoration.

And yet we still do not have these necessary acts of public recognition – which is shocking when you think about it.

This weekend brings Remembrance Sunday. It's important that we remember the fallen of two World Wars and other conflicts. But how much more immediate is our own conflict? The Troubles was Death Up Close And Personal. The wounds for many are still raw, the anguish still fresh, the grief still unspoken.

As terrible, as difficult as it is, we are compelled to remember. That is not to surrender to the past; rather it is a coming to terms with it.

Where are our Lutyens-type memorials? Our cenotaphs? Our Vietnam Memorial Wall? Our two minute silences for the departed? Where are the formal elegies and requiems broadcast over our media?

Our griefs remain raw, untrammelled, shapeless and publicly unrecognised. That isn't right. On the contrary, it's a disgrace and devastating condemnation of our polity and our failure as a society. All those deaths, all those sorrows accorded no official public recognition.

If we are ever to truly to come to terms with a blood-seeped past, we need the power of public acts.

Imagine the power of a Northern Ireland Day of Remembrance, embracing England and the Republic (which also suffered because of our quarrels). A day of speech, reflection, prayer, a civic recognition of trauma. A day of powerful symbol – a tea-light shining where each and every person fell, to offer one small suggestion.

Imagine that as a powerful image of the fragility of life, of hope, of a refusal to forget or give into the darkness.

In other words, to recognise that each and every one of us have – at the very least – the suffering of the Troubles in common. That it is a grief that will forever unite us all.

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