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Why the victims killed in the Bayardo Bar massacre also deserve to be remembered

Republican violence suffered by the loyalist community struggles for equal billing in discussions about the past, says Henry McDonald

Published 29/08/2016

A memorial for victims of the Bayardo Bar bombing on the Shankill Road
A memorial for victims of the Bayardo Bar bombing on the Shankill Road

Revelations in this newspaper last week - that Ardoyne IRA veteran Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane received a royal pardon in connection with the Bayardo Bar massacre - highlights again the way Troubles history is being both rewritten and, in some cases, erased entirely.

On reading the above paragraph, some of you might be forgiven for asking: "Bayardo Bar massacre? What and when was that?"

The IRA attack on the Shankill Road pub - led by McFarlane - on August 13, 1975 resulted in the death of four civilians and one UVF member. It is widely believed that the bombing and shooting at the pub was in retaliation for the UVF slaughter of the Miami Showband a fortnight earlier as the group were returning to Dublin.

Two murderous sectarian actions within a fortnight; one which has become an infamous milestone of the Northern Ireland conflict; the other, a relatively forgotten atrocity, which underlines how, in many instances, the violence inflicted on the loyalist community by their republican enemies has been left behind in the Troubles' narrative.

In part, this process of selective Troubles memory culture is down to loyalism itself. Unionist politicians, community leaders and cultural figures have been slower out of the blocks in terms of highlighting those more blatantly sectarian actions of armed republican groups since 1969.

Republican communities, on the other hand, have been far more active in not only memorialising violent events impacting upon them, but also campaigning for the truth about those actions, from Bloody Sunday to the Ballymurphy massacre, from the Pat Finucane killing to the mass shooting at Loughinisland.

Nationalists and republicans have every right to demand truth and justice (no matter how elusive those concepts can be and how, at times, they can be mutually exclusive) about such atrocities during the Troubles.

However, the lack of balance in how the past is being investigated here has created a one-track, green-tinted narrative, which starts with the burning of Bombay Street in 1969, to internment in 1971, Bloody Sunday a year later, the 1981 hunger strike and, latterly, the peace process, with a few massacres involving British troops, the RUC and loyalists in between.

No mention of the fact that more Catholic civilians were killed by the IRA and INLA than the Army, for instance. Little coverage of explicitly sectarian outrages until very recently, like the Kingsmills slaughter, or the deliberate targeting of civilians in the IRA bombing campaigns on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Of course, loyalists and unionists have, to a large extent, only themselves to blame for not investing more time and energy into demanding probes into such past crimes; but they also have some justification when they complain that much of the coverage (both in the media and popular culture) airbrushes their stories from history.

Add to this suspicion about a hostile media and intelligentsia, who dismiss their narratives, the ongoing Boston College tapes debacle. The arrest of senior loyalist and one-time leading Red Hand Commando figure Winston Rae over what he says (or, rather, does not say) on the Belfast Project testimonies will only discourage further working-class loyalists from taking part in a full-blown, universal truth-recovery process. They will ask - with some justification - whose truth and for what purpose?

In terms of the Northern Ireland Executive's Fresh Start arrangement, which has promised to set up a mechanism to deal with the past, the question is will it have legal guarantees that anyone who provides information, or gives testimony about violent evens, will not be at risk of prosecution in the future?

Given that senior IRA veterans, like 'Bik' McFarlane, Gerry Kelly and others, have either got royal pardons, or Tony Blair's notorious "letters of comfort", while loyalists continue to be arrested over similar Troubles-related crimes, how could anyone from a loyalist paramilitary background, for example, be wholly confident about coming forward and telling the truth about a whole string of murderous incidents over more than a quarter of a century of conflict?

Indeed, it could be argued that Blair's comfort letters did as much damage to the truth-recovery process as Boston College and the American courts' surrender to the PSNI over the tapes.

Which begs another important question: why can the public not be told who exactly is on the list of those given those letters of comfort - including the so-called "on-the-runs"?

Surely, this would be one small step towards the kind of transparency everyone is supposedly seeking in terms of truth and reconciliation?

Ah, yes. There is that word that hasn't cropped up so far: reconciliation. Because the truth over what really went on this complex incipient civil war doesn't necessarily lead to a reconciliation between fractured communities.

Just imagine, in a small town, say, along the border in Fermanagh, a widow hears, via the envisaged truth-recovery process, the testimony of a man who confesses that he and his cohorts killed her husband 30 years before. Or the son who learns that the gang who gunned down his father in front of him four decades ago were all operating as informants for the police and/or Army (who were turning a blind eye to their activities).

In the "narrow ground" of Northern Ireland (to borrow that brilliant phrase minted by the late eminent historian ATQ Stewart), the victims have always suspected that those who took away their loved ones, or those who maimed them for life, were living, in many instances, cheek-by-jowl with them.

These above scenarios are the potential by-product, multiplied many, many times across this region, from any truth-recovery process.

They pose a serious challenge for our lawmakers and politicians as they seek to create the architecture of such a process.

And, yet, the alternative is the current situation, where it appears one community is dominating the narrative structure of the "war" between 1969 to 1997, which arguably is now being fought by other means.

The net result of all this one-sided, selective inquiry culture is the production of the "memorialisation" of the Troubles, rather than any proper historical inquiry into the past.

As the respected Dutch writer and intellectual Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1999, on how wars, civil wars and conflicts are recalled: "Memory is not the same as history and memorialising is different from writing history."

Belfast Telegraph

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