Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Reporters saw human cost of Northern Ireland's political failures during the Troubles

New book Reporting The Troubles is an essential account of unvarnished, uncomfortable truths. Gail Walker says why

Notorious atrocity: a soldier outside Sean Graham’s on the Ormeau Road, where five men were murdered
Notorious atrocity: a soldier outside Sean Graham’s on the Ormeau Road, where five men were murdered
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Im going to write about Reporting The Troubles, a landmark new book edited by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, which brings together the recollections of 68 reporters - myself included - who worked through those years of violence.

Why? Because while this book is primarily about victims, the forensic detail in many of those recollections, images that have stayed in the mind's eye for decades, reminded me about the all-too-often overlooked characteristic of the true journalist - someone not only with curiosity, but with empathy. The reporters who covered the Troubles act as an important repository of memory. They were in the front lines of observation, arriving at the scene at the same time as the emergency services or just behind them. They saw the terrible things. They saw the immediate results of our madness, our hatred, our capacity for damage. They saw the human cost of the failure of our politics.

These revisited memories are the stories behind the headlines. This Blackstaff Press book is an essential and important one because reporters saw the raw, unvarnished truth before the alchemy of 'understanding', of putting deaths into a so-called 'hierarchy' of tragedy, of mythologising, of politicians explaining it away or 'placing it in a wider context', of academics' analyses as to where this or that tragedy left community relations, of paramilitary organisations dividing their sheep and goats, saved and damned. All those rationales for our dance of death.

Much of this distancing can be valuable. It is, perhaps, inevitable. But it does run the risk of skimming over the human dimension. A human dimension that expresses itself most fully in the tiniest of details.

Take Richard Kay writing on the murder of Mary Travers. He tells how the Travers family had gotten into the habit of staying on for 15 minutes after church to talk to neighbours - just like thousands of us.

Or Ivan Little on the massacre at Sean Graham's on Belfast's Ormeau Road, watching the dead and injured being carried out on stretchers, hearing the cries of young Billy McManus looking for his father Willie.

Or Jane Loughrey arriving at the door of Michael Gallagher to enquire about his son Aiden, missing after the Omagh bomb, only to be told that he was no longer missing. Michael had found Aiden's body in the morgue only three hours earlier. Aiden had only gone into Omagh to buy a pair of jeans.

Derval Fitzsimons remembered Jillian Johnston, 'mistakenly' gunned down by the IRA in Belleek after travelling to the village from her Boa Island home with her childhood sweetheart to buy fish and chips.

Kate Adie recalled a small child telling her 'My daddy won't get up' as the poor man lay dead under a Christmas tree after his killers fired a shot through his living room window.

It is those intimate, often everyday, details that not only disturb but particularise and individualise - reminding us that when you get up close to what some would characterise as a story of valour, it turns out to be grim beyond bearing.

Reporters see those consequences. They may also begin that process of distancing ourselves from the human dimension, allowing us to process the violence and somehow carry on. It's their duty to get the facts and not get personally involved.

But they also render truths more profound than the lies and broad brush-strokes of politics and history.

Truths that, under the care of our leaders, are in danger of being overlooked for the sake of convenience.

Almost 25 years after the ceasefires, we haven't begun to reconcile ourselves to those who died and those left behind to grieve.

Nowhere have all of them been given systematic space and time to tell their stories in their own way, to hear of how they disposed of their loved one's old clothes, how every day they pass the spot where their husband was gunned down, how they cope with anniversaries and birthdays.

We need to hear all the sad incidentals - how they liked to chat, or go fishing, or how they were mad keen on dogs - if only to underscore the horror of how they met their end, to understand the person whose life was snuffed out.

Maybe these simple human truths are just too much for our version of peace. Not 'whatever you say, say nothing', but a kind of 'don't remind us - we can't cope'. Talk about truth commissions and victim memorials all you want, just don't remind us of the unfinished cup of tea, the carpet that had to be lifted because of the bloodstains, the clergyman identifying his son through a box of trick matches. Of course, we feel some things can't be revisited or contemplated or spoken of. It is simply too much. But that still should not give us the excuse for not confronting the horror caused by us or, at least, carried out in our name.

It is incredible that we have got this far as a society in peace without having faced the past squarely in the eye. Can we hope to get any further? Do we think that, soon, the survivors will themselves have died out, as so many in fact have already, and we won't have to atone for the bloodshed? Do we think we might still get away with it all?

We must do. What other explanation is there for shuffling along, day after day, as the anniversaries flick by every day of the week, as if nothing happened here, as if we are, in fact, like Scotland, or Devon or Brittany or Leinster?

Well, we haven't got away with it, and we won't. History proves that. One contributor remembers a south Belfast milkman murdered on his float, his blood mixing with the milk from smashed milk bottles on the ground. Once known, that picture cannot be forgotten. Yet in a culture obsessed with remembrance, whether Easter or Armistice, the names of the Troubles dead have never made it onto a memorial. At least now, a few of them have been remembered in Reporting The Troubles.

We must somehow reconcile this generation, and those of the future, with the dead still with us. If we don't, then as a community, a place, an idea, we will just foster and encourage those around us now, already among us, who know nothing of the past other than the malice, bitterness, poisonous amnesia and self-disgust which survived it. Injustice upon injustice, wound upon wound.

There is still a chance to do things properly by our own people.

We need to find a way to remember these things appropriately so that the people who died and those who suffered loss aren't just case files or enemies or inconvenient statistics.

They were just like you and me. They laughed at sitcoms, had cups of coffee, fancied fish and chips, told the dog to stop yelping, wondered who it was at the door at this time of night...

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