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Wreath row woman accepts republican invite to visit the scene of soldier son's death


Jean O'Connor at the grave of her son

Jean O'Connor at the grave of her son

Iain O'Connor

Iain O'Connor

The wreath

The wreath

Gerry Foster

Gerry Foster

Jean O'Connor at the grave of her son

The mother of a Catholic soldier who was killed by the IRA has accepted an invitation from former republican prisoners to visit the scene where her son died.

Teach na Failte, which represents ex-INLA prisoners, said it reached out to the mother of Private Iain O'Connor in an attempt to heal the hurt caused by the removal of a poppy wreath in west Belfast.

It offered to pay for her and a friend's travel and accommodation expenses in and effort to promote mutual understanding.

Ms O'Connor told this newspaper last night that she would accept the invitation.

"That would mean a lot to me because I've never visited the place where Iain died that day," she said.

"I couldn't bear to hear an Irish voice for so long after it."

The 23-year-old was killed on March 30, 1987 after two blast bombs were dropped from Divis Flats on Cullingtree Road just three days after he began his tour of duty.

One of the bombs entered the open hatch of the Army Land Rover he was in.

After welcoming the invite to visit the place where he died, the 80-year-old grandmother, who lives in Preston, Lancashire, recalled the heartache of being told she couldn't attend the murder trial.

It ended with a Sinn Fein worker who acted as a lookout and made his flat available to the IRA being sentenced to life behind bars. He was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

"Not long after it happened I heard they found the person responsible and rather naively I wanted to attend the court case, but was advised it wasn't safe for me," she said.

"The Army also believed I would be putting other soldiers' lives at risk, so I didn't go."

The Catholic, who stopped attending Mass for a long time after her son's death, has wanted for a long time to pray in the church where the clergyman who read Iain the last rites served.

"I always think about that priest and what he did for my dying son," she said.

"It would mean an awful lot for me to be able to go and light a candle there."

The pensioner, who only retired from work a year ago, has often thought about coming to the city, but could not afford to travel.

Ms O' Connor, who subsequently divorced Iain's father Jim (he died in 1998), previously recalled how she had no money and was forced to get a bank loan to buy a black dress for her son's funeral.

Gerry Foster of Teach na Failte said many members were extremely moved after reading her story.

He reached out to her through the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.

He said: "We believe it was insensitive to leave the wreath in the circumstances in which it was done.

"But no one wanted to retraumatise this soldier's mum. Her story is heartbreaking - we don't have hearts of stone.

"This is someone who lost her son in a conflict she probably knew little about.

"We can never take her pain away.

"But if we can bring her one step towards closure and heal the additional hurt she has endured, then we want to do that."

The former INLA prisoner, who was sentenced to eight years for his role in planting a no-warning bomb at the Ulster Unionist Party headquarters in 1982, said many local residents in the Falls area were also moved by the story.

But he he pointed out that not every local will be sympathetic.

He said: "This is about Irish republicans trying to understand the pain we have inflicted on families.

"Not everyone in our community will welcome this, but we are willing take the flak.

"It's easy to see the hurt in your own community, but you have to see it on the other side.

"That is our challenge to everyone - including republicans - who have had their lives torn apart by the Troubles.

"If they disagree then my question is simple: 'What is the alternative?'"

For more than 10 years Teach na Failte has been reaching out to victims of violence and has brought former soldiers and the families of slain servicemen face-to-face with ex-prisoners.

It has also facilitated other encounters between ex-combatants and grieving relatives of murdered RUC and UDR members.

"We as Irish republicans are very mindful of the hurt that has been caused, but we also understand the pain inflicted on the people of Divis by British forces," Mr Foster added.

Belfast Telegraph