Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

We live distorted normality where fear still reigns

Jean McConville (left) who was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972
Jean McConville (left) who was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972

Sometimes you forget that we're not normal. We're starting to look like other, more civilised places: tired-eyed people rushing home from work, election posters featuring corpulent old men in suits, shopping centres full of bored teenage girls, billboards promising us things we don't need: all the usual paraphernalia of modern life.

Then you get a week like the last one and you remember all over again how ludicrous, dangerous and morally inverted this whole crazy place is.

Jean McConville — torn from her children, tortured, shot in the back of the head and then flung into a hole in the ground like a dead dog — started off as an unimpeachable victim, the victim's victim, her fate embodying the diabolical brutality at the core of the republican movement, as well as the more general collective failure to deal with the stinking legacy of the past.

But, somehow, by the end of the week Gerry Adams was the new victim: the leader/peacemaker/visionary (delete as applicable) oppressed and harassed by State forces, yet nobly managing to rise above it all, statesmanlike, for the sake of all the little kiddywinks to come in the future. Someone buy that man a Nelson Mandela T-shirt. He's earned it, don't you think?

Living in fear. That is the phrase that keeps coming up, particularly in recent days. Even after all these years, the shadow of a gunman is never very far away.

Michael McConville, son of Jean: 11 years old when IRA men and women took away his mum and murdered her, then returned, days later to beat a lifetime of fear into that already traumatised child, so that he is still — understandably — too frightened to name the people who participated in the atrocity.

Anthony McIntyre, the former IRA man whose revealing interviews with old comrades eventually led to the Adams arrest, is now fearful for his own safety as a result. Adams himself, subject to death threats, which, of course, he brushed aside as the price he pays for all the sterling work he does in the peace-building business.

And it isn't just odours coming directly from the Troubles’ abyss. What about the young Polish people in east Belfast, having a game of football in the street when they were set upon by men with golf clubs, their teeth knocked right out of their mouths?

Such an attack adds a whole new dimension to the slogan ‘locals only' daubed on the broken, boarded-up windows of other Polish family homes in the neighbourhood. It makes it live and real and terrifying; it carries the compelling force of fear. That's how intimidation works. The awful possibility of what might happen gets into your head, travels straight to the fear-centre of your brain — the animal part, concerned only with survival — and takes up residence there.

It's not subject to reason, which makes it all the more powerful, and it makes the people who placed that fear there more powerful still.

 I suspect that the rational part of Michael McConville's mind tells him that he is unlikely to be attacked if he tells the police who abducted his mother. But the fear is stronger.

Terrorism doesn't just blow up bodies. It mangles minds, too, lodging a maggot in the brain, which can go on consuming its host long after the first trauma has faded.

No, we are not normal. At this rate we never will be. Because the threat of violence — whether explicitly stated, which happens less often these days (unless you have the misfortune to be Polish, or Romanian), or implicitly conveyed — is hard-wired into our society.

It hasn't gone away: it can't, it's the weather of this place.

It is our defining characteristic, the ugly reality that lies behind everything. We wouldn't be who we are without it.

It's why we have to put up with illegal marches and tattered flags hanging from lampposts and noxious bonfires belching out the smoke from a thousand burning tyres.

It's why we have to endure former terrorists lecturing us about the principles of equality and justice and truth, because we'd rather have any amount of hypocrisy and sanctimonious posturing than a return to the bloody past.

This is our normality. We have been successfully suppressed; rendered compliant; drilled, or coerced, or otherwise traumatised into submission. We are not able to speak or act with perfect freedom, as others do elsewhere.

Peace may be here, but fear is still in charge.

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