Even for a place used to hatred, repugnant video was a new low
In 2011, I travelled to Mauritius to cover a murder. Foreign travel is not as common as it once was in journalism. The fact that such a large press pack travelled to the Indian Ocean island to cover the murder of Michaela McAreavey was a sign of just what an unusual and devastating event it was, a human tragedy on a level that was incomprehensible to many. Of the thousands of stories I’ve covered over the years, it is one that will stick with me for ever.
Until that point, Michaela was a household name only to GAA fans used to seeing her on the sidelines, cheering on the Tyrone team managed by her father, Mickey Harte.
We got to know a lot more about her following her murder in a hotel room, in which she was strangled and placed in a bath just 10 days into a marriage with her sweetheart, John McAreavey.
She had been the Ulster Rose of Tralee, an Irish school teacher and an only daughter, doted on by her mother, father and brothers.
While at St Mary’s teacher training college, she was not your typical student. While others were enjoying £1 shots in the bars, the teetotal Michaela would be baking. Her friends spoke fondly of how they were always guaranteed a feed of buns at her house. She had a notoriously sweet tooth.
The first sign for her new husband that things weren’t right was when she failed to return from her hotel room after lunch, where she had gone to grab a biscuit to have with a cup of tea.
“She went to her room to get a wee treat”, sang the drunken Orangeman who mocked her death in the now notorious video.
Michaela was an innocent, a good person who tried to live her life according to values that seemed almost of another generation. Every picture was of her beaming with her perfect smile.
There was nothing anyone could find offensive about the 27-year-old killed in a far-off land.
As they continued their sick song, the loyalists banged tables in glee.
I couldn’t tell you what John McAreavey’s politics are. He has only ever spoken publicly about the justice campaign for his murdered wife. Yet, as the words of a well-rehearsed song rang out from Dundonald Orange Hall, those present chanted merrily at the top of their voices about Mr McAreavey being unable to come to her aid.
We’re used to sectarian hate, so used to it that I’d say we are desensitised to the level of disrespect shown to victims and their families.
Whether it’s on the football terraces, at parades, during commemorations or in murals glorifying serial killers, there’s a weary sense of acceptance about it all, a shrug of the shoulders.
But Michaela’s murder wasn’t political. It didn’t have anything to do with this often squalid place. What was her sin for those who wrote and penned that song? That she was a devout Catholic? An Irish speaker? That she came from a GAA family? That she was a woman? Or, was it all of the above?
Since Brexit, we have talked a lot about the future of our island, about what its constitutional status will be in 10 or 20 years. Yet, those who claim to be the most loyal to the Union are those who do the least to sell its benefits.
Who would want to be part of a future that involves that level of sectarianism, that level of misogyny, that level of unadulterated hatred?
Prior to insulting Michaela, they had reportedly sung other distasteful songs which had a clear sectarian tone. Are we to assume this is standard behaviour in many Orange halls of a weekend?
Three of the men involved have apologised, but the song was well-rehearsed. It clearly wasn’t the first time that this gruesome party piece had been trotted out. They weren’t apologising for the song, they were apologising for being caught.
The quick action of Linfield and Portadown Football Clubs, in distancing themselves from people involved in the video, is to be commended.
In the past, there was little in the way of consequences for those who peddle hate. The lovely Michaela would have been the first to forgive them. She had more Christianity in her little finger than every one of them combined.
During my 11-hour flight to Mauritius in 2011, I thought about a grieving John McAreavey having to make the return journey without the warm hand of the woman he loved next to him. Instead, he travelled home with her coffin in the plane’s hold.
I thought of him again this week, of how he must be feeling, and then he told us, in words that honoured his late wife better than any columnist ever could. In a simple Twitter post, he said: “Michaela was a vessel of love, courage and dignity.”
I leave the last words to him: “Hate can hurt, but never win.”