Belfast Telegraph

Shooting a dad dead outside a school isn't just murder - it's child abuse on a massive scale

Cruel gunman exposed youngsters, especially the victim's children, to unimaginable trauma, says Fionola Meredith

The murder at the school gates in west Belfast reveals, yet again, the brutal violence and lawlessness that lies just below the surface in Northern Ireland. This is not a normal place, and we are not a normal people.

We live in a society where mothers bring their sons to paramilitaries to be shot in the legs, because the alternative is even more dreadful.

We live in a society where a father, sitting in his car waiting to collect his young son from school, can be murdered in front of hundreds of children.

A school at picking-up time is meant to be a safe, cheerful place. Instead, people described the frantic efforts of teachers to throw coats over the windscreen of Jim Donegan's car to shield children from the unimaginably appalling sight of his bullet-riddled body. It was still visible to youngsters through the shattered driver's window.

In the chaos, many children were left stranded because their parents were not able to get near the school, which must have redoubled their fear and confusion. One autistic child was left literally speechless.

Counselling and support will be made available to them, of course, but what will be the long-term effect on the children, their parents, and their teachers, who were forced to bear witness to this horrific act and its aftermath?

What will it do to Mr Donegan's son - aged about 13 and just on the cusp of adolescence - who fled screaming into the school after his father was shot?

What will it do to his wife, Laura, and his younger son, both of them left clinging to each other and sobbing uncontrollably?

We know a great deal more about trauma today than we did during the long years of the Troubles.

The enduring pain of victims has always been clear, of course, but now we have learned in precise detail what terrible harm trauma can wreak on a human life. It can even be mapped on brain scans.

Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk is one of the world's foremost experts on traumatic stress. In his definitive book, The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk explains how trauma "changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think".

He says that trauma is "not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain and body".

Trauma can drain people of joy, purpose and spontaneity. It can make them sick, or dependent on drugs and alcohol. It can leave them feeling radically unsafe, with jittery, hyper-vigilant bodies, unconsciously primed to react to the next catastrophe they feel is always imminent.

Such people may know, rationally, that whatever befell them is unlikely to happen again, but the deep part of the brain which governs the survival instinct doesn't know that, and so they get stuck in a state of perpetual underlying fear.

Any trigger, however small - even a certain smell or sound - can set them off, like a hyper-sensitive smoke alarm, and catapult them straight back to the source of the original trauma.

As Van Der Kolk observes, traumatic experiences leave traces on histories, cultures and families, as the after-effects pass down through the generations.

Northern Ireland is surely an obvious case in point.

Killing fathers in front of their children is far from unknown here. Only last year, Colin Horner was shot in front of his three-year-old son in Bangor, the victim of a loyalist paramilitary feud.

Not even school-age, this boy was exposed to the worst depravity that human beings can wreak on each other, something that nobody - certainly not a tiny child - should ever have to see. Who does that? Who commits murder, let alone murder in full view of children? What kind of diabolical, pitiless psychopath would you have to be?

By intervening so viciously and callously not just in the lives of the Donegan family, but in the lives of the children who were innocent witnesses, the gunman is guilty not only of murder, but of mass child abuse.

He can walk away and return to his own life until the day, which can't come soon enough, when he is caught, prosecuted and called to account for his abominable actions.

Mr Donegan himself is past all help now. The people who will bear the scars of pain, horror and fear, for many years to come, are his family and the scores of youngsters whose childhoods ended on Tuesday, after school.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph