Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Liam Neeson a started conversation about bitterness and revenge we all need to have

The Hollywood star was accused of racism but, says Gail Walker, he also exposed one of the reasons we still haven't a memorial to the dead of the Troubles

Actor Liam Neeson
Actor Liam Neeson
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Was anyone, even Liam Neeson, surprised that his unprompted "confession" that he wanted to revenge the rape of a friend by killing a black man caused a transatlantic furore?

But beneath the sensational and plausible charges of "racism", we should recognise the profound resonances for each and every one of us in Northern Ireland

It's a no-brainer to say that Neeson's behaviour all those decades ago was quite clearly as objectionable on racist grounds as it was criminal on legal ones. That, after all, was the whole point of his narrative. He was uncharacteristically incendiary in his choice of language, but it is quite obvious that he was putting himself in the pillory.

He didn't hesitate to condemn the feelings he harboured those four decades ago. Contrasting the dignity of his friend with his own potentially outrageously criminal behaviour, he said: "She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way, but my immediate reaction was… I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.

"I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I'd be approached by somebody - I'm ashamed to say that - and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some 'black b*****d' would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him."

It's an extraordinary tale. But this was a man reflecting on things of which one should be ashamed. He was not boasting. He was not grandstanding. Rather, the interview came across more as a matter more suited to the confessional or the psychiatrist's couch than a hotel room promotional interview for a new movie.

There was no reason for Neeson to say what he did, other than the current climate of #MeToo and exposures of racist and sexist attitudes in the past. In any case, in addition to admitting to the disturbing and reprehensible instincts, he was quick to point out the insanity and moral poison of revenge.

And this was 'real world' revenge - not the celluloid version, where baddies are easily identified and at the receiving end of swift and satisfying retribution, usually at the hands of characters played by Mr Neeson in his chosen profession, at which he excels.

But in the age of the social media star chamber, his words were mangled beyond recognition, the discourse stripped of context. People certainly have a right to be disturbed by the details, but the Ballymena actor wasn't speaking primarily about race; he was talking about revenge, victimhood, hatred, anger - those dark, primeval feelings that can defy reason and decency, feelings which concentrate not on justice but on relieving the pain beyond endurance.

Yes, the racist element of the Neeson interview made the headlines. But how odd that so little was made of the actor's comments about his Northern Irish background: "I grew up in Northern Ireland in the Troubles - and, you know, I knew a couple of guys that died on hunger strike, and I had acquaintances who were very caught up in the Troubles, and I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing, and Northern Ireland's proof of that. All this stuff that's happening in the world, the violence, is proof of that, you know. But that primal need, I understand."

It's rare for any celebrity from here to speak so candidly about our shared past. It's also maybe a sign of how far we have thankfully drifted from daily violence that this aspect of Neeson's own history doesn't spring as quickly to the headlines as it would have done 15 or 20 years ago.

Neeson hints that the slaughter people here witnessed, planned, gave covert support to, may not - despite the grand quasi-idealistic, quasi-militaristic mantles we love to drape around our shoulders - have mainly been about pure principle or nationhood.

It may have also been about revenge and fear of revenge.

Our group hurts had to be avenged - and the result was atrocity after atrocity: Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday, the Shankill Butchers, Kingsmill, McGurk's, Enniskillen, Darkley, Greysteel, Loughinisland - and all those souls picked off by one by one on doorsteps, streets, church doorways, at the turn of a key in the ignition, not remembered in a mass atrocity, forgotten now by all except their loved ones...

Our Troubles had as much to do with a Liam Neeson-style hanging around outside pubs with a cosh in the pocket as the idea of war as an arm of politics, driven by motives just as squalid, just as reprehensible as his were back then in his week of madness.

At least he wised up after a few days and asked himself: "What the f*** are you doing?".

Many of us here never asked ourselves that question - or at least not hard enough.

It's an uncomfortable thought, but we should also remember that there are many out there - victims of violence - who have nothing to cling to left... except dreams of revenge. Denied justice, increasingly gagged by the needs of 'the peace process', they have little but yellowing photographs and newspaper clippings to remind them of loved ones killed in their prime.

We need to talk about their pain - dark and uncomfortable as we may find the discussion.

Neeson's candour reminds us that we aren't so perfect. Is there a single person here who, in moments of anger and hurt, did not harbour for a moment a dark, sectarian thought or saw "our side" as "not as bad" as the other side? Who "understood" certain acts but professed moral outrage at others. Many of us - even the most "decent" - spoke, at times, with forked tongue.

Not to acknowledge these dark feelings is murderous tomfoolery. Murderous, because it undermines the truth of our Troubles in their awful entirety and leaves us with little but the self-justifying press releases of the combatants. It would become only too easy to believe that the violence made "a kind of sense". It didn't - there was no profound logic to the conflict, just a cycle of revenge carried out not by dreamers and patriots but by angry young men (and women) looking to even the score.

The tenacity of those dark feelings, those secret sectarian attitudes, those enduring bitternesses, is seen in the simple inability even to devise a memorial to the victims.

We cannot bring ourselves to face the dead. We still have scores to settle with them. We are not done with it yet.

So, inadvertently, the Ballymena man has begun an comfortable conversation we all should be having - not in Hollywood or New York or London, but right here. In Northern Ireland. Right now.

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