Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Willie Frazer didn't always make the right calls, but the republican movement has lost one of its most implacable foes ... that's a worthy enough epitaph for any man

The victims' campaigner showed huge personal courage when he confronted former terrorists. One even called the police. Oh, the irony.

Willie Frazer
Willie Frazer
Dessie O’Hare
Kevin McKenna
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Victims' campaigner Willie Frazer, who's died at the age of 58, was an active user of social media. His most recent video on Facebook appeared a couple of months ago when he assured well-wishers that he was recovering from the cancer that eventually took his life and would soon be back in the fray, having made a promise that: "I would not allow the terrorists to rewrite the history."

Whatever one thinks of Frazer's frequently controversial contribution to the ongoing tussle over how the Troubles should be remembered, there's no doubt that this remains the most urgent fight for the future.

There's a battle on for truth, and increasingly it seems that those who prefer lies are winning it.

There was another example of that last week at the funeral of one-time IRA chief-of-staff Kevin McKenna.

Giving the eulogy at the graveside, former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams went through the motions of regretting the taking of innocent life before insisting that the IRA had been "right to fight" anyway, adding that "we will not let the past be written in a way that demonises patriots".

The Troubles may have been consigned to history, but this Orwellian abuse of ordinary words such as "patriots" is why Adams was wrong to say last week that "the war is over".

It's simply moved on to a new battlefield, and right now that's about who gets to tell the story of the conflict.

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Republicans are making no bones of the fact that they intend to control that narrative, and far too often those who were opposed to the IRA's sectarian violence have bitten their tongues for the sake of the peace process.

It's become clear that the demand for respect is just another of those "Trojan horses", whose real purpose is to retrospectively justify terrorism.

Young people are being schooled in the dark arts of misremembering the past, those children who had poison poured into their ears at McKenna's funeral not least.

Frazer never fell for the honeyed blandishments, and it was based on bitter experience of his family being targeted by the IRA in south Armagh. It's not really possible to understand Frazer without taking into consideration the place in which he lived.

Seamus Mallon writes about it eloquently in his recent book, A Shared Home Place. Both men hail from the same area of the country, which was ravaged with internecine violence during the Troubles.

"Neighbour killing neighbour has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community," the former SDLP deputy leader recalls. "It enveloped every crevice of life, spreading anger, suspicion, fear, hatred and ultimately despair. It left a dark cloud of deep suffering and loss that will endure for many decades."

Frazer was a product of that place, for good and ill, having seen his father, two uncles, two cousins, a brother-in-law and other friends murdered at the hands of the IRA.

Too much suffering can make a stone of the heart, and it's arguable that these tragedies gave Frazer an unfavourably one-sided view of the violence. He deserves credit for being so dogged in his determination to fight for the victims of republican terrorism, but the litany of murders by loyalists, frequently with security force collusion, which took place in the same area, as also documented by Mallon in his memoir, never received the same attention from him.

Frazer was dismissive of the findings of official inquiries into collusion, and efforts to expose the activities of the notorious Glennane Gang, who killed more than 100 Catholics, mostly innocent civilians, in the so-called murder triangle, recently found journalists being accused by him of trying to "dirty the good name of the UDR and RUC once again in south Armagh".

It was the ones in those organisations who took the law into their own hands who dirtied the good names of their decent colleagues, and the ugly truth demands to be set down in the record every bit as much as the evil of the IRA.

His known association with loyalist paramilitaries and other unsavoury individuals likewise opened him up to charges of hypocrisy, which it would be hard to refute.

Frazer often spoke without thinking, as when he mistook an Italian flag at a Co Tyrone primary school for the Irish tricolour and claimed that it was "the junior headquarters of SF/IRA", and he frequently refused to apologise when his more wild claims turned out to be entirely false. That recklessness brought him into conflict with fellow unionists on numerous occasions, even those most supportive of his campaign.

It's for this and other reasons that Frazer leaves a complicated legacy, but there's no denying that, throughout it all, he showed huge personal courage in directly confronting former terrorists about their crimes, as when he doorstepped notorious INLA killer Dessie O'Hare, the so-called Border Fox, at his home in Co Armagh. According to Frazer, O'Hare called the police. Now there's irony.

The battle over his own posthumous reputation began the moment that Frazer's death was announced, and it was telling that republicans, who'd spent the week demanding that their own dead be treated with kid gloves, were openly gleeful over the weekend at the passing of their arch nemesis.

It's important not to make too much of the nastiness which swishes around the cesspit of social media at such times - though equally hard not to smile at loyalist Jamie Bryson's tribute to his friend that Frazer "wouldn't have wanted it any other way; he wouldn't want the sympathy of those he stood against his whole life" - but nor should it be entirely ignored.

McKenna was chief-of-staff of the IRA during a period when it was responsible for 1,200 killings - that's the size of a large village - while, as Frazer's close friend, pastor Barrie Halliday, points out, the Armagh man "never pulled a trigger or planted a bomb in his life".

"That is what the real divisive people did. They are the ones that left empty chairs at kitchen tables," he said.

Just because a man has died at a comparatively young age does not mean that he should be remembered only in glowing terms. The traditional injunction to not speak ill of the dead has been the excuse for too much sanctimonious humbug down the years. But judgments of a life should be based on a fair assessment of facts, not sectarian oneupmanship.

Frazer didn't always make the right calls, but he made enough of them when they mattered.

The republican movement has lost one its most trenchant foes, and IRA victims one of its most indefatigable champions. That's a worthy enough epitaph for any man.

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