Victims' voices unheard above the self-pitying whine of our mass murderers
Killers like the UFF's Torrens Knight and the IRA's Sean Kelly like to express regret, but where is the atonement, asks Gail Walker
Although there is no record of Him having gone missing, apparently God has been found by Greysteel murderer Torrens Knight, who is - as we say in these parts - "born again". The man whose hate-contorted face became an abiding image of sectarian bile says that he regrets being part of a UFF gang that murdered 12 people in cold blood in 1993: eight men and women at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel and four men in Castlerock. He now knows that this was wrong.
While we can't dismiss the possibility that Knight has indeed repented of his crimes or that the deity may be inclined to extend His forgiveness (if you believe in Him), one can't help but say: "So what, Torrens?"
It's a bit late to discover that ending the life of an 81-year-old man in a hail of bullets is "wrong". The vast majority of us knew - even at the height of the Troubles - that killing people was "wrong".
Many of us will give a weary shrug and say that Knight is just a murderer forgiving himself - as is their wont. After all, where is the desire for restitution? Knight took his freedom under the Good Friday Agreement, serving only seven years for murdering 12 people. Why isn't he demanding to be properly punished and to be put back in jail? Why doesn't he face the relatives of those he killed to beg for their forgiveness? His testimony, uploaded to the website of Set Free Prisons Bangor, seems very much about how hard life has been for Knight, of his own wrong turnings, with scant mention of those whom he hurt most deeply. According to reports in Sunday Life, he doesn't talk about how his sleep is tormented by nightmare flashes of what took place in the Rising Sun bar. There is no soul-searching about what he might say to those whose lives he helped snuff out should he meet them in Heaven. The faces of the dead don't haunt him.
Still, at least Knight publicly has acknowledged his wrongdoings. And we should do well to remember that the UDA and UFF aren't the only paramilitary groupings in our midst prone to giving themselves, by hook or by crook, a bye-ball. On the contrary, we have a cottage industry of people who have committed the vilest of deeds seeking to explain themselves. Some reach for theology. Others reach for history - or a simpleton's view of social determinism.
But through it all killers like Knight still find ways to inveigle themselves into our public awareness. They seek not to be victimised, stigmatised, stereotyped or caricatured, but rather understood. And through it all the killers still occupy centre stage, once more strolling into our world and spraying us with their dramatic view of themselves.
We are all familiar with the poly-syllabic mumblings and fumblings of IRA killers such as Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, with their spiel about how things having to be "viewed in context". They are not "sorry" about the things they did, as individuals, but they do "regret" the social and political pressures that drove them to do those things. It is the mood music of sorrow without the actual, you know, sorrow.
The killings at Greysteel were part of a particularly vicious cycle of murder and mayhem following the Shankill Road bombing. So what of Shankill bomber Sean Kelly, also happily walking the streets due to early release? He turns up at the unveiling of a plaque to honour fellow bomber Thomas Begley, who died in the blast - and he's sorry too, in his case for ending the lives of nine people, including two children. Speaking after his release in 2000 Kelly said: "The fact innocent people died is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. While we did go out to kill the leadership of the UDA, we never intended for innocent people to die. But it honestly was an accident and if I could do anything to change what happened, believe me I would do it." Sixteen years later he hasn't progressed this. No cross-community work. No atonement through good deeds. No visible sign of a man wracked by guilt.
Let's be blunt. We're used to this tone - the self-pitying whinge (accepts that some will hate him), the apparent cod-heroic acceptance of hard facts which turns out to be nothing but self-serving gibberish. God. History. Context. Culture. Accident. All convenient soaps that wash whiter than white.
And why wouldn't they reach for the easy excuse? Our polity makes it very easy for them. We are in the middle of an election and what have we heard? Keep the other ones out... abortion... keep the other ones out... same-sex marriage... keep the other ones out.
One word you won't hear is "victims". They are the wound that dare not speak their name. Indeed, we almost make it incumbent upon them to stifle their screams of pain in case they rock the boat. What happened to their stories, their views? Why doesn't there seem to be the political will to recognise their trauma? Where is the recognition of 40 years of innocent suffering in our culture? Where is the publicly subsidised memorial at Belfast City Hall, or for that matter Stormont? The victims I know, such as Ann Travers, epitomise the sort of grace that Knight will never have.
No, it seems that the only people who are allowed to testify - either theologically or politically - are the killers who terrorised us for a generation. And the only acts of public commemoration will be murals celebrating the "patriotism" and bravery of our self-appointed heroes.
I don't know if Knight's repentance is genuine. But who actually cares? What I do know is that most people are tired of hearing the excuses and equivocations on the lips of men and women who have done terrible things. Perhaps we will hear yet more as the evil they have done weighs more heavily on their consciences - and they get jittery about what lies beyond this world. I am not alone in feeling little sympathy for their psycho-dramas.
But it is remarkable that not one out of all the perpetrators offers themselves up for appropriate retribution. They all make off with the good fortune of their community notoriety on the one hand and their freedom to live on the other.
And then there are those anonymous perpetrators of unsolved atrocities. How refreshing it would be if the many hundreds of killers who were never brought to justice at all were suddenly to step forward and stake a claim to their murder!
Then we all might take regret and sorrow and understanding and context much more seriously.
Gail Walker is CIPR Columnist of the Year. Follow her @GWalker9