Belfast Telegraph

There'll always be that someone to remind us

We cannot airbrush ex-paramilitary prisoners from society. However distressing it is for victims to encounter them, without them there would be no peace process, argues Henry McDonald

Charlie Armstrong's remains would never have been discovered if the Families of the Disappeared had stayed silent. That is the salient, overlooked fact in the current coverage of the latest discovery of one of the 'Disappeared' in isolated Monaghan bogland just a few miles from where the missing South Armagh man used to live before he vanished in August 1981.

It has to be stated and re-stated that it was not until a group of families of those whom the IRA abducted, killed and buried in secret started to speak out in the year of the ceasefires that the world heard about Ireland's 'Disappeared'.

Without the tenacity and guts of the likes of Jean McConville's daughter Helen McKendry and her husband Seamus the issue of the 'Disappeared' would have not even have made it into the footnotes of Troubles' history books.

Their campaign and continued pressure on Sinn Fein after 1994 is the central reason why past members of the republican movement involved in the disappearances started to break 'Omerta' and offer up information on the bodies' whereabouts.

The relatives of the 'Disappeared' have also demonstrated enormous generosity of spirit during their 16-year battle to give the missing of the Troubles a proper burial.

It was deeply humbling to meet with the Families of Disappeared and hear their constant refrain to the IRA that they wanted no one brought to justice over what happened to their loved-ones.

For anyone who lost a loved-one or relative in the Troubles, there can be no prescriptive position regarding the perpetrators, whether they be republicans, loyalists or the British state.

The 'Disappeared' families have been a shining example of how to come to terms with the past, no matter how painful, in order that a society as a whole can emerge and move on.

Part of that 'moving on' process has been the question of how to re-integrate paramilitary prisoners back into society.

Let us be straight, open and honest and admit that there would have been no political settlement at Stormont unless hundreds of prisoners from the IRA, INLA and loyalist groups walked free early from the Maze prison. The de facto amnesty scheme was an essential building bloc in putting together that compromise deal between unionism and nationalism.

The issue of freeing paramilitaries, including killers, early and the general question of ex-terrorist inmates, has thrown up huge moral and ethical dilemmas.

Many - particularly in the unionist community - have been alienated from the political process because of the deals hammered out at Castle Buildings and Downing Street entailed prisoners enjoying their freedom earlier than the courts had first deemed.

And now US retail giant Walmart has found itself at the centre of a controversy concerning what to do about one ex-paramilitary murderer who happens to be an employee of its UK trading arm - Asda.

Ex-Ulster Volunteer Force member Billy Hunter. who works at the Asda store on Belfast's Shore Road, was jailed for the double murder of two Catholic brothers in the 1970s.

Hunter was sacked in July after commenting about the singing of The Sash over the Twelfth at the store. However, he was soon reinstated after protests from residents of the nearby Mount Vernon estate.

The family of the Catholic men he murdered, John and Thomas McErlean, were outraged and demanded a meeting with Asda executives. The McErlean family's request was granted and two senior executives from Walmart held an emotional meeting with them. The encounter appeared to give some comfort to the McErleans with Asda noting that the family had demonstrated "dignity throughout an extremely difficult and sensitive situation".

It was heartening to see that Gerard McErlean and his family circle received some comfort from their meeting with Walmart after the controversy on the Shore Road had resurrected so many painful memories for them.

One of the most prescient remarks made by Gerard McErlean following the discussions with the two executives was that the family "want to make it clear that prisoners who have served their time have every right to work in their communities and beyond".

The McErlean's own spirit of generosity in that regard points also to how victims not only come to terms with the past but also how they cope with coming across those who inflicted so much pain and damage on them during the conflict years.

Like it or not Northern Ireland is a society of ex-prisoners and their families. Today these former inmates not only work in jobs such as the one Billy Hunter still holds down in Asda There are ex-paramilitary prisoners in legal practices, academia, the arts, community organisations and, yes, even the media.

We cannot wish this significant sector of the post-Troubles population away - even though for individuals it may be an extremely distressing experience to bump into them in the local high street or, as in the example of the Asda controversy, read about what they are up to today in the press and media.

The attitudes, however, of the Families of the Disappeared and the McErlean family suggest that perhaps Northern Ireland society is more open to accepting the unpalatable compromises of the peace process than first imagined.

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