Tomorrow is Father’s Day, one of those occasions which my late dad would have described as a “funny old time”, meaning it wasn’t a particularly great experience for those who find it defined more by loss of a loved one than jokey cards, comedy socks and boozy lunches.
He said the same thing about Christmas, which I resented because it felt like he was putting a dampener on the celebrations. But then Dad died and I understood exactly what he meant.
This ran through my mind after reading the moving appeal for information by the now grown-up children of two RUC officers, Constable John Graham (34) and Reserve Constable David Johnston (30), murdered 25 years ago in Lurgan by two IRA gunmen who ran up behind them and shot them at close range.
The families want justice for their fathers, or what counts for justice now. As Abbie (32), daughter of Constable Graham explained, under the Good Friday Agreement, “if the killers were caught and jailed, they could only do two years”. If the Legacy Bill passes, they’ll get nothing as no one guilty of pre-GFA crimes will face court. “We really feel we are running out of time,” Abbie said.
It’s just happenstance that this year’s anniversary fell days before Father’s Day, but the timing brings added poignancy.
Mr Graham had three daughters — Abbie, seven when her dad was murdered, Rebecca (10) and Katie (2). Abbie’s last glimpse of her father was when she headed off to school: “He was sitting in the kitchen with my younger sister on his knee, feeding her peanut butter toast”.
Mr Johnston had two sons, aged just seven and three. The older boy, Louie, recalled his father’s “infectious laughter and smile, dancing around the house with him when he played his music”.
The children’s time with their fathers was so brief that their memories must seem, to quote Pink Floyd, like “distant ship smoke on the horizon”. A bittersweet blur of comfort, fun, of all being well in the world.
I was in my early 30s when my father died, yet our time together seemed to have passed — to use one of his favourite phrases — in the blink of an eye. But it was three decades of help with maths homework, war memories, bear hugs, knocking about. Of ‘dad stuff’.
My father’s approach was best summed up by the phrase ‘oul decency’ — do the right thing, treat others as you’d want to be treated, don’t be bamboozled into sectarianism. If a friend from ‘the other side’ visited our home, his welcome was all the greater because such connections meant more during the Troubles. The small, human transactions that would carry us through.
My family has a well of memories to draw upon. Recently, digging in his garden, I unearthed potatoes he’d planted years ago, glinting like golden nuggets in the rich soil. In my head, I constantly turn over the words he used: carnaptious, carfuffle, gorbage, blether.
The children of Constables Graham and Johnston missed so much. Constables Graham and Johnston missed so much too.
Imagine if you could put the word ‘father’ into some great big Troubles permutation calculator. What a devastating read those results would be. The murdered fathers cut down by assailants skulking in hedges, planting bombs on school buses. The father of the first child to die in the Troubles, a nine-year-old boy shot dead in his home. The father who saw his daughter shot dead as they left Mass together. The father who clasped his daughter’s hand beneath the rubble on Remembrance Day.
Those stories make headlines, but there are many more known only in the hearts that grieve on. The fathers-to-be who never lived to see their first-born child. The jailed fathers whose children’s lives were set spinning into chaos. I knew one such boy, still adrift amid the wreckage in adulthood.
Constables Graham and Johnston were murdered in Church Walk in my home town. Popular community officers. In shirt sleeves for the summer. Chatting to people from all backgrounds. Their killings left many vexed, angry and unnerved. The fledgling peace felt brittle.
Later, I’d talk at length to John’s mother, Pearl Graham. John “didn’t have a sectarian bone in his body”, she’d say, something she felt was validated by the hundreds of letters she received from Lurgan Catholics who’d known him.
With her public grief, cries for justice and opposition to the Belfast Agreement, which she felt rewarded terrorism, Mrs Graham would have been considered an “unhelpful voice”. But she was a mother whose son had been murdered. Her heart was broken. It’s impossible now not to acknowledge that she spoke uncomfortable truths.
In 2014, the families were promised a case review was imminent, but the Historical Enquiries Team’s successor, the Legacy Investigations Branch, felt differently. Like thousands, they never got any justice.
Vile songs of one ilk or another. Soft sectarianism. Poisonous narratives. John Graham and David Johnston were among 300 RUC men and women murdered. The vast majority of officers never went to work planning to kill anyone, but the force’s reputation has been traduced for political purposes.
The families hope new eyewitnesses who saw the killers flee will come forward. Sadly, in 2022, it’s still a big ask, not because people don’t want to talk, but because they’re afraid to do so.
How shockingly young they all were — the lost constables and their five youngsters, all aged 10 or under when their world changed utterly.
A popular trope is that children are resilient in the face of grief. Caught up in the whir of school, sports and friends, they bounce back. Perhaps supported by families, that’s correct to some extent, but it’s also an idea adults find comforting.
The truth is many bereaved children suffer terribly after losing a parent. Their lives are never the same, the narrative arc changed forever by a dad-shaped space.
When Louie Johnston became a father, he missed his dad in a new, different way — as a grandfather. Another Father’s Day comes around. The grief goes on and on, but justice never turns up.