Gerry Kelly, the man who would be policing and justice minister in the Stormont Assembly, featured in a documentary this week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Maze prison breakout.
His account of the incident included an “extraordinary conversation” (his words) with one of the prison officers on duty that day.
Extraordinary is not the word for it.
Given, that is, that the prison officer in question was lying bleeding on the floor at the time.
Gerry having shot him. In the face. At point blank range.
According to Gerry’s narrative, when the man recovered consciousness he (Gerry) demanded of him: “What did you do that for?”
He was referring to the officer’s attempt to slam a door in his face.
Since Gerry had been bearing down on him with gun in hand, bit of a rhetorical question there, you might think.
The prison officer, says Gerry, replied: “I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m sorry. Can I get up now?”
To which, Gerry says, he retorted: “No, you can’t. You’re bleeding heavily. I’ll get you help. But don’t move.”
There are indeed a number of extraordinary aspects to this story. Starting with the fact that the man telling it may not be fully aware of the chilling impact of his words.
Paramilitaries on all sides in Northern Ireland have always been extremely coy about spelling out the details of the “operations” they were involved in. It has reached the stage where we are now seemingly expected to think that during the course of the Troubles bombs just, well, went off.
Nobody actually planned them or planted them.
People got shot. Nobody actually pulled the trigger. Or stood over their victims as they lay helpless and bleeding on the ground
Gerry’s story is obviously different in that it does at least put him at the scene. But (and he is not unique among paramilitaries from all sides here) there is that cute little twist at the end where he moves seamlessly from coldly gunning down an unarmed man to assuring him that help is on its way.
From callous gunman to Good Samaritan in one easy step.
Or so we are meant to believe
The most extraordinary thing about Gerry’s story is not what it tells us about what happened at the Maze that day (many of the officers involved refused to give their side of the story since they still fear for their lives. A reflection there surely of the general level of ‘confidence’ in our peace process.)
No. The most fascinating aspect of Gerry’s account is what it tells us about paramilitary thinking in general. In a way his escape story sums up paramilitary denial culture on all sides.
It goes something like this
OK, so they may have inflicted violence. But the victims of violence brought that upon themselves. The perpetrators had little choice.
“What did you do that for?”
And let’s not assume that just because they did shockingly evil, cruel things, that paramilitaries somehow didn’t have hearts of gold.
“You’re bleeding heavily. I’ll get you help.”
Implicit in all this is the paramilitary argument that the perpetrators (past and present) are actually the real peace-makers.
But is this really common public perception?
Do the rest of us really overlook the horror of the past as glibly as the paramilitaries — all the paramilitaries — seem to think? Isn’t it true that some things just can’t be forgotten? That there are some things you can’t escape