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North Belfast: Two communities, one future

Alex Bunting, Mary Kelly and JJ Magee outside the Bridge of Hope
centre in Belfast. Mary and JJ hold pictures of relatives who were killed
Alex Bunting, Mary Kelly and JJ Magee outside the Bridge of Hope centre in Belfast. Mary and JJ hold pictures of relatives who were killed

It’s an area that suffered grievously during the Troubles but from today the North Belfast Respect Programme 2010, supported by the Belfast Telegraph, will host a series of events aimed at bringing both sides closer together, including a poignant remembrance vigil. Marie Foy reports

During 30 years of the Troubles, few areas have taken a worse battering than north Belfast. Shockingly, within one square mile it has been estimated that 635 people have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, both Protestant and Catholic.

In recent years community workers, politicians, educators and the people themselves have been working hard to try and help those whose lives have been shattered.

As part of that vital work, today sees the launch of the North Belfast Respect Programme 2010 — a series of community-led events aimed at encouraging respect among all sections of society.

The first event is a poignant remembrance vigil which will be held next Monday evening outside the Bridge of Hope offices in Duncairn Gardens to acknowledge the deep loss and hurt endured by the entire community as a result of conflict.

Two local secondary school students Rebekah Bradford, from Girls’ Model, and Nicole O’Rawe, from Little Flower, will read out a 20 word statement, carefully crafted and agreed by various local groups, which deals with the area’s past as well as its hopes for the future.

The organisers will also hand out white roses and candles to those who attend as a symbol of remembrance.

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Bridge of Hope (BoH) project director Irene Sherry is organising the vigil. She says: “Respect is key to everything we do. Once respect is prevalent in society, it builds community cohesion. It engenders hope.

“We want to get to the point where people listen to each other. There has to be an understanding of one another and where each person has come from.

“For the last nine years the Bridge of Hope project has worked tirelessly with families affected by the conflict. We are always trying to create innovative opportunities to enhance, develop, and sustain relationships into the future.

“This event is a further extension of that work.”

Out of the heartache, three stories of hope and healing

Former taxi driver Alex Bunting (55) had his leg blown off in October 1991 when a booby-trap bomb under his car exploded. He lost a finger, is deaf in one ear and his other leg was damaged. The IRA said it was mistaken identity. Alex, who now lives in Bangor, is married with two sons and three grandchildren. He says:

I was 37 when I was blown up. It was early on a Monday morning and my first fare was a woman going to work. I was driving along Sandy Row and was just going over Boyne Bridge when I saw a flash like a rainbow on the dashboard. I was told later it was the detonator. I think it must have been instinct but I hit my door and pushed the lady who was sitting beside me into the footwell. As I did that the bomb exploded.

My leg went out the door first and I went out after it. I hit the road or the wall. It was dark and raining and I remember water running into the gutter, and someone yelling and screaming. Everything was in slow motion. I didn’t feel any pain except in my finger. I thought ‘My legs are blown off and I’m going to die’.

I remember asking about my passenger, she had shrapnel wounds but survived. All I could think about was my wife and how I wouldn’t see my boys growing up, Alex was 15 and Colm was 10.

But I was lucky. There was a doctor travelling behind me on his way to the City hospital and started to work on me straight away. There was an Army foot patrol nearby and they used their field dressings on me and because the hospital was close I was there in 10 to 15 minutes.

I was awake the whole time until they took me into the operating theatre. They put 37 pints of blood through me and operated on me for 12 hours. I started bleeding again and had another nine hour operation. My wife was told there was a one in a million chance that I’d survive.

I had to get plastic surgery and learn how to walk on an artificial leg and how to use a wheelchair. I must have been in hospital for about a year. It was a long hard struggle and I couldn’t have come through it without my wife and sons and family. I’m very proud of all of them.

I find it hard to get about and my ‘good’ leg gives me an enormous amount of trouble. I’m in and out of hospital two or three times a year. I have my ups and downs, but mostly ups. I try to keep positive.

No one was ever charged and I don’t want to know who did it. It wouldn’t do me or my family any good. I want to move on. I feel very privileged to be here and I’m glad I am. A lot of people didn’t make it. That is why I back this process of respecting everybody. We can’t go on the way things were before and I want the two communities to work together for the betterment of both.

Mary Kelly’s brother Michael McLarnon (22) was shot dead by a soldier in Ardoyne in October 1971. Mary confronted ex-soldier Clifford Burrage, who fired the shot, on emotive 2006 BBC NI programme Facing The Truth, hosted by Archbishop Tutu. She says:

Michael had been out the back of the house, my father had a garage and was always tinkering at cars. I was in the house. It was about 9pm and my mum shouted for them to come in for tea. There were Army patrols around and we heard a shot being fired. My mum said not to go out but he did. He came straight back in again and said he had been shot. Mum said ‘God forgive you’.

He fell forward. There was a wee hole in the front but his back was lying open. He was going in and out of consciousness. Pandemonium set in and there was screaming and shouting. He was taken to hospital and the doctors operated on him for a couple of hours and kept giving him blood. He died at 10 to two, and me and my younger brother had to go home and tell our parents.

I was 24, one girl in a family of eight boys (two boys died young). I was like another mother to Michael, it couldn’t have been any worse if it had been my own child. Heartbreaking.

It was unbelievable. I can still remember my mother, that will never leave me. I had to try and keep everything under control, that was the burden on me. We have very good neighbours, they all came round, we got great support.

The headline in the papers and on the news was that the British Army had shot an IRA gunman. I actually think that put my parents in an early grave. He was innocent.

The soldier sent a letter to my mother. His wife was expecting their first baby and he asked her for forgiveness. I had mixed feelings about meeting him. My parents wanted Michael’s name cleared. The only reason I did it was because it was a chance for me to say he was an innocent man, not an IRA man. If there is something positive you can do when you are alive, you should do it. I did it for my children too — I have two daughters and two sons. I want them to know the truth.You can’t forget but I don’t hate anybody.

He is a born again Christian and has made his peace with God. If you say the Our Father, if you believe as a Christian and a Catholic, then God has already forgiven him. Why does he need the likes of me to forgive him? I have to ask God to forgive me too, I’m not perfect. That is my thinking.

Projects like this are important. People on both sides of the divide have suffered, people are hurting. If you can come together and say I understand the hurt and what happened to you, that will make a difference in the future — I got involved in cross-community work to help people move on.

JJ Magee (47) lost his 16-year-old sister Anne who died 17 days after she was shot by loyalists in a shop at Manor Street in 1976. He says:

Anne was the eldest of seven of us. It was a Friday evening and me and my three younger brothers were going to Newcastle for the weekend with the local youth club. Anne was working in the small corner shop a few hundred yards away from home — on what would later be the interface.

We had some pocket money so just before we headed off we went in and I bought an apple. I was joking with her and she laughed when I was leaving — I can’t remember what we were talking about, but those were the last words I spoke to her.

I think it happened about 10 o’clock in the evening. I believe three or four people came into the shop, one with a sawn-off shotgun, and robbed it. On the way out he opened fire on my sister and another woman. The other woman was hurt badly but she pulled through. One of the youth leaders told me the next day.

Anne was shot around the face but she seemed to be doing well in hospital. I was only 13 and hadn’t been allowed to see her, but the day I was supposed to go for the first time we got a call to say she’s taken a bad turn.

Mum and dad rushed off. That was Saturday. I didn’t see them again until Monday. One of the pellets had been lodged somewhere they didn’t see it. It seems if it had happened today, with all the advances in technology, she would have survived.

I got up that Monday and did my paper round and went to school. The school secretary came for me and my brother. We just looked at each other but said nothing. My mum’s best friend drove us home. In our street all the neighbours’ curtains were drawn. I knew but I didn’t want to believe it. There was mayhem in the house, everybody was there.

Anne was a brilliant girl. She was in sixth year at Our Lady of Mercy in Ballysillan and was doing well in her exams. She was a fanatical supporter of the Bay City Rollers and had a tartan scarf and all the stuff. I remember watching her doing shorthand for homework.

Some people were caught for the shooting, the one who pulled the trigger was only 16. They didn’t do a very long time in jail.

Afterwards I became a sectarian bigot. As the years went on, particularly when I started working with Protestants, I realised they were the same as me in a lot of ways. My whole attitude change until now I hate sectarianism.

It’s important the two communities share stories. I was at a victims’ forum and was really impressed that they were all listening to each other, I thought that was very positive.

I think victims have moved on a lot more than they are given credit for and have made great strides to help the peace process. It’s important to talk about the past without living in it, and to learn from each other.

Remembrance Ceremony, Bridge of Hope’s offices, Duncairn Gardens, Belfast, Monday, 7pm

Respect’s programme of events

A project which encourages respect between the communities, the North Belfast Respect Programme 2010 (NBRP) is launched today.

The programme includes a series of debates, conferences, family sports, health events and tours, and runs until Halloween.

The cross-community project is being facilitated by the Ashton Community Trust and is part-funded by the OFMDFM. The Belfast Telegraph is its media partner.

Events include:

Sept 27: 7pm, a remembrance ceremony outside the Bridge of Hope’s offices at Duncairn Gardens, followed by a discussion called Making Sense Of The Past In The Present

Oct 10: Run for Respect, promoting sport and healthy living

Oct 13: Socio-Economic conference, Lansdowne Hotel, Antrim Road

Oct 21: Cohesion, Sharing and Integration conference, called Empowering The Next Generation, St Kevin’s Hall, North Queen Street

Oct 26: drama production on the theme of respect

Oct 9 and 16: tours of north Belfast followed by a discussion hosted by expert conflict analysts

Oct 20: tours of Stormont

Oct 17 and 23: tours of Dublin

Oct 28: Family Halloween parade

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