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We can never return to nightmare of Troubles

The return of gunmen to our streets has shocked Northern Ireland and beyond, but the mood of a public who lived through 30 years of civil strife is clear ... they want no more terror, no more killing and no more grieving. David Gordon reports

“I grew up in the Troubles. I couldn't believe we were going back to that.”

That comment, from a member of the crowd at Wednesday's Belfast city centre peace rally, summed up the prevailing public mood across Northern Ireland this week.

The murders in Antrim and Craigavon brought countless disturbing memories flooding back for many thousands of people

We really thought those days were gone.

That view now seems somewhat naïve, if not complacent, in light of the previous near-misses by dissident republicans.

Repeated stark warnings had also been sounded by the security forces on the determination of these factions to kill.

There has already been talk of how this week has become a defining moment for the province.

The political leaders at Stormont have been widely praised for rising to the occasion, meeting head-on the challenge posed by the gunmen trying to wreck the peace process.

The image of First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness standing shoulder to shoulder with chief constable Sir Hugh Orde at Stormont Castle was certainly striking.

And the strong condemnation by Mr McGuinness of the murderers as “traitors” made the press conference all the more significant.

It is, of course, far too early to starting writing up the history books just at the moment.

No one knows just yet how this chapter will finish.

That's one of the reasons why people remain understandably nervous.

Anyone who lived through the Troubles will also remember previous dark days all too well — periods when violence escalated far above the “normal” levels, when international media crews set up camp here, when the politicians united in condemnation, and people hoped and prayed that a line had finally been crossed.

It did not always work out that way.

January 1976

In the space of just two days at the beginning of 1976, 15 men were shot dead and a 16th suffered injuries that would claim his life less than a month later.

On January 4, UVF gunmen burst into the Reavey family home in Whitecross, south Armagh.

Brothers John and Brian Reavey died in a hail of bullets. Their younger brother Anthony was hit as he tried to take cover under a bed. He died in hospital on January 30.

On the same night, the UVF killed three other Catholic men in a similar attack 15 miles away, near Gilford.

Brothers Barry and Declan O'Dowd and their uncle Joe had been taking part in a family sing-song when the gunmen struck.

The following night, the IRA killed 10 Protestant workers in south Armagh in what became known as the Kingsmills Massacre.

The victims were: Robert Walker, Joseph Lemmon, Reginald Chapman, Walter Chapman, Kenneth Worton, James McWhirter, Robert Chambers, John McConville, John Bryans and Robert Freeburn.

They were returning from work at a textile factory when their bus was stopped. The one Catholic in the group was told to run up the road and he heard gunfire as he fled.

In a January 6 article for the Irish Independent, reporter James Kelly wrote of the “fearsome prospect” looming of “naked, all-out sectarian war” in the province.

The head of the Catholic Church Cardinal Conway commented: “Those who take a life for a life are spitting in the face of Christ. If this vicious chain of murder and |revenge is not broken soon, this community will sink even deeper into the mire.”

However, the violence would continue across another two decades, before the paramilitary ceasefires of the 1990s.

Anthony Reavey and the only Protestant to survive the Kingsmills massacre, Alan Black, were at one stage treated in the same hospital ward.

The book Lost Lives documents that, in the days between Kingmills and Anthony Reavey's death on January 30, a further 28 people were killed in attacks in Northern Ireland.

March 1988

On March 6, 1988, the SAS shot dead three IRA members — Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann — in Gibraltar.

Ten days later, their funeral at Milltown Cemetery was subjected to a gun and grenade attack by loyalist Michael Stone.

Three people — Thomas McErlean, John Murray and Caoimhin MacBradaigh — died.

On March 19, two Army corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes — were killed in west Belfast after driving into the area where the MacBradaigh funeral was taking place.

They were firstly attacked by mourners, who believed they had been mounting a Stone-like attack.

They were then driven a short distance in a black taxi and shot dead by the IRA on waste ground just off the Andersonstown Road.

The two corporals were given the last rites by Redemptorist priest Father Alec Reid.

He would subsequently have a key behind-the-scenes role in the peace process, facilitating crucial talks between republicans and mainstream nationalism.

Fr Reid was also one of two clergymen who witnessed the IRA's final act of decommissioning in 2005.

On the Monday after the murder of the corporals, the Belfast Telegraph called for progress towards political talks between unionists and the SDLP. It urged Secretary of State Tom King to “try to get the political process going” to take the focus away from the IRA.

“The sooner the talks about talks, with both sides, develop into inter-party talks about |devolutionary steps that might be taken in future, the better. There is no time to lose,” the editorial added.

October 1993

An IRA bomb killed 10 people on the Shankill Road on Saturday, October 23, 1993.

Nine Protestants — John Desmond Frizzell, George Williamson, Gillian Williamson, Sharon McBride, Michelle Baird, Evelyn Baird, Michael Morrison, Leanne Murray and Wilma McKee — died along with one of the bombers, Thomas Begley.

In a further infamous attack the following Saturday, the UFF killed seven people in a gun attack on the Rising Sun lounge and restaurant at Greysteel.

The victims were: Karen Thompson, Steven Gerard Mullan, James Moore, Joseph McDermott, Moira Duddy, John Moyne and John Alexander Burns.

In the days between Shankill and Greysteel, six other people were murdered in Northern Ireland.

That meant 23 people had died in a single week.

The Daily Express calculated that if a proportionate number of killings in Britain had occurred, 810 men, women and children would have lost their lives.

“If the 3,102 deaths since the Troubles began were similarly extrapolated, the toll becomes 109,000,” it continued.

“That is a town the size of Blackburn, Gloucester or the population of the Scottish Borders region wiped out.”

It seemed that the fledgling |efforts at a peace process being made at this time were doomed.

But it has subsequently been |argued that the violence actually galvanised faltering efforts to reach an accommodation.

The then Prime Minister John Major has stated: “The process was on a knife-edge.

“I think it would have broken down, had not the Shankill and Greysteel tragedies intervened.”

Just a few weeks after Shankill and Greysteel, in mid-December 1993, the Downing Street declaration was jointly issued by the British and Irish governments.

It proved to be a significant building block in the peace process that would eventually lead to ceasefires, IRA decommissioning and a power-sharing Stormont government.

See: Lost Lives, published by Mainstream Publishing and Years of Darkness, published by Gill and Macmillan

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