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We raise up statues to terrorists, but where is the memorial to victims?

The grounds of Belfast City Hall would be a fitting location, but it wouldn't be without major controversy, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 15/11/2016

Republicans unveil a memorial in the Ardoyne area of Belfast for IRA men killed in the Troubles
Republicans unveil a memorial in the Ardoyne area of Belfast for IRA men killed in the Troubles

It's not the done thing these days to honour those who made their mark on the world through military service. When asked who it wants to see on the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square, or on the back of a new bank note, the public invariably cold shoulders old soldiers and opts instead for less controversial figures from history. Even busts and statues that have stood there for donkey's years are now the subject of angry protests.

Terrorists in Northern Ireland have no such problems. Here there are memorials galore to those who decided that the best path to getting their own way was to bomb anyone who disagreed with them into submission.

A new memorial giving pride of place to dead IRA members was recently unveiled in north Belfast, with Shankill Road bomber Sean Kelly in attendance. Loyalists, likewise, keep erecting memorial stones to the UVF in what are meant to be sombre remembrance gardens. There are even children's playgrounds named after IRA men, which takes a particularly twisted imagination to justify, considering the number of children murdered during the Troubles. Why not name the playgrounds after them, rather than their killers?

What makes it worse is that many of these memorials are erected on Housing Executive property - some with money from the European peace fund, irony of ironies - but nothing's done to stop it, because that might upset the poor wee dears in balaclavas who still like to pretend that they were the heroes of the hour.

Reviews are set up. Councils say they'll "look into the matter". Months and years later, the memorials remain in place - a lasting slap in the face to victims.

The latest row to erupt is over the 10ft statue of an armed paramilitary in the City Cemetery in Derry. It was erected in 2000 by the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army to glorify members who died during the Troubles and has long been a source of contention; but the eyesore has recently become the focus of renewed attention, because of plans by the local council to begin running tours of the cemetery. There are fears that the statue may put off visitors, just as it already offends many Protestants in the city - and who could blame them?

If there's one thing of which Northern Ireland has no shortage, after all, it's victims of violence and their families. And they already have to put up with a political system which bends over backwards to accommodate those who spent the Troubles doling out death. Statues and memorials just add insult to injury.

Perhaps, though, the problem is not that terrorists honour their dead, but that the rest of us fail to do so adequately. There may be memorials to individual victims of atrocities, such as the Shankill Road and McGurk's Bar bombings, but they tend to be concentrated in the affected communities.

What's needed is a place of commemoration for all innocent victims, in the manner of the 9/11 memorial in New York. It's astonishing that it hasn't yet happened.

Next year, a national memorial for the British victims of terrorism overseas, such as those murdered in last year's Paris attacks, or on the beach in Tunisia in 2015, will be unveiled in Staffordshire. It shouldn't be beyond our collective resolution to do the same in Northern Ireland.

Of course, it wouldn't be without controversy. Nothing here ever is. The 9/11 memorial in New York lists the names of all those who died. The same goes for the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial in Jerusalem and the memorial fountain to the 521 Bosnian children killed during the siege of Sarajevo.

Any attempt to do the same in Northern Ireland would immediately become bogged down in arguments as to who deserves recognition as "innocent". Should the terrorist killed by his own bomb really be listed alongside those who were the target of the attack?

Most of us would say that he shouldn't. The 9/11 monument doesn't name Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers - and rightly so. The majority of victims of terrorism had no choice and they're more worthy of solemn remembrance than those who did.

But drawing distinctions between those who died, however justifiably, would invite accusations of a hierarchy of victims. Such a debate would be both ugly and unseemly.

So, let there be no names, if that's what it takes. That's no reason not to go ahead with a dignified, large-scale memorial dedicated to the memory of all innocent victims of the Troubles.

If members of the IRA, or UVF, wish to delude themselves that this includes them, so be it. There's nothing we can do about that. Most people know what innocent means. Most of us would know who the memorial was really for.

Building it would be a powerful expression of those true victims' suffering and the quiet decency with which those they left behind have borne their pain.

There would also be no better place for it than in front of Belfast's City Hall. It's the symbolic centre of the place affected most by the violence. It's neutral territory, shared by all. Everyone knows it. Everyone goes there. This was the place where we congregated to hear President Clinton. It's home to the Titanic Memorial.

It's also a focal point for tourists. And that's important, too. It must seem odd to many foreign visitors that there's no official commemoration of events which defined Northern Ireland for most of our lifetimes. It's as if we want to forget that it happened.

Victims and their families don't have the luxury of forgetting. What they do have is a right to be remembered. It shouldn't be difficult to do. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron only announced the creation of the national memorial for the British victims of terrorism overseas in 2015 and it will be open to visitors next summer. All it takes is the will to get it done.

The brother of David Haines, the aid worker murdered by Islamic State in 2014, summed up why it matters so much: "As well as being a focal point for loved ones, I hope that the National Memorial will epitomise that we have to unite to overcome the hatred of terrorism, which only seeks to sow division and hatred."

That's exactly what Northern Ireland needs, too - not another plaque, or statue, to unrepentant serial killers.

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