Belfast Telegraph

Apologies will be harder to get than the truth

Twenty years after the Teebane and Ormeau bookies' shop massacres we're no closer to the killers saying 'sorry', writes Brian Rowan

In the rushed delivery of the loyalist statement, the newsroom typist thought she had heard the words "Remember Strabane".

The telephone call to the BBC was more than 20 years ago; the anonymous caller representing the UDA.

He was dictating a statement after the gun attack on a bookies shop on the Ormeau Road, an attack in which five people were killed.

It came within weeks of the IRA slaughter of eight workmen, travelling home in a minibus, targeted in a bomb explosion at Teebane.

And it was that attack that the UDA tried to use as justification for the bookmakers' shootings.

The closing words of its statement - delivered with the codeword 'Crucible' - should have read 'Remember Teebane'.

In a conflict stretching across decades, there were many such statements from one organisation and then another.

These were the words of explanation and attempted justification delivered after the bombs and the bullets.

All sorts of spurious allegations were made in that UDA statement 20 years ago; lies now exposed in a recent television interview given by one of the organisation's leaders, Jackie McDonald.

He was in jail in 1992 when the shootings happened, but he knows they were part of a retaliation 'numbers-game' in which "innocent people usually suffer".

I asked McDonald if the people in the bookies were innocent, to which he replied: "Of course."

"If there had been a war between loyalism and republicanism, I'd have rather seen them taking the war to each other - not to the communities. But that's where it took everybody."

I then asked him was it too hard to say sorry? "I can't say sorry, because I wasn't part of it."

He means in 1992, when some other paramilitary 'brigadier' will have been in charge; in this case, the man who came up with the codeword 'Crucible' and that closing thought in the UDA statement - Remember Teebane.

But in his UDA leadership role, McDonald will have been part of other orders and actions that read back into the different wars of this place.

There is a bluntness to McDonald when he speaks on these issues. And there is a message that tells us that a 'truth process' - if ever there is one - will not be an 'apology process'.

He set the Ormeau shootings in the context of retaliation and numbers, accepted the innocence of the victims, but refused to apologise because in that time and at that moment he did not give the order.

But there is more to it than that. He told me that people would be listening to his interview and his words and would dissect everything he said.

For all his paramilitary rank, McDonald is still looking over his shoulder. And while he might want to apologise for things that happened, there are others who don't - and who won't.

And this is not just inside the loyalist community, but across the board. There are continuing battles about victimhood, about who needs to explain and answer and about whether to try to deal with the past or leave it.

But it won't go away. And there is nothing as simple as that trite suggestion of drawing a line.

In a recent online interview, Queen's University professor Kieran McEvoy described the need for a "grown-up conversation" that seeks to maximise the potential for truth.

Victimhood, he said, is "about suffering" and we should "recognise the pain of the other".

He also believes we cannot avoid the truth emerging - meaning more information.

And McDonald gave us some more of that truth in his assessment of those shootings that date back to 1992.

The apology the families of the Ormeau victims are looking for is not from loyalists, but a Bloody Sunday-type apology from the Prime Minister, David Cameron. They want him to acknowledge the story behind the story; what Tommy Duffin, whose father was killed, describes as collusion "at a high, high level".

The families have many questions detailed in a report compiled by the support group Relatives For Justice.

Some of those questions relate to the weapons used in the attack and how they came to be in the hands of the loyalist gunmen.

So, the truth they are interested in is not what we all saw on that February day in 1992, but what went on behind the scenes; how loyalists came to be armed in the late-1980s and how one of the weapons used in the bookies' attack had been in the hands of police and then went back out to loyalists.

The Teebane families have their own questions about what happened to their loved ones and that UDA statement after the Ormeau shootings only added to their hurt; retired Presbyterian minister the Rev Ivor Smith described the attempted justification as "a dagger to the heart".

Kieran McEvoy is right that we cannot avoid the truth emerging. What he means is we can try to find that truth in a properly constructed process, otherwise people will find their own ways to drag it out. But, whatever methods and means are used, not every truth will come with an apology.

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