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Joan Travers passed away without seeing justice, and for that we should feel ashamed

Our victims have been horrendously let down for years. It's time their concerns were put first, writes Gail Walker


Joan Travers

Joan Travers

Joan Travers

Mercifully, when the end came, it was so very different to her daughter Mary's slaying on a Belfast pavement. According to her other daughter Ann's Facebook post, Joan Travers "passed away peacefully... reunited in heaven with her husband, our father Tom and her gorgeous little Mary taken from her too soon on this earth".

Mary Travers' life ended when she was 22. It didn't stretch out through a teaching career and - who knows? - marriage, children and grandchildren, family celebrations, holidays, shopping trips and favourite pets.

Joan Travers' life was long and did embrace many of those events but it also was demarcated in the most brutal way - the time when her daughter Mary was alive and the time when Mary was dead, the latter period longer than the former.

In 1984 an IRA squad lay in wait outside St Brigid's church on Belfast's Derryvolgie Avenue. Despite denials, it is believed they wanted to wipe out the whole family. Tom Travers was shot six times, Mary lay dying on the street, shot in the back. One gunman put a gun to Joan's face but, miraculously, the weapon jammed twice.

As always when left twisting in the damage limitation wind, the murderers lied. Mary was shot, they said, by a bullet passing through her father's body. Forensic tests proved this was nonsense.

In the three decades since that terrible day, the Travers family have shown themselves to be remarkable on so many occasions.

Following a letter of sympathy from Rev Cecil Newall, then President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Joan wrote back, asking them to remember the killers in their prayers as well: "We would like you to pray that all men who have murder in their hearts will be overcome by the love of God so that that they, like Mary, will one day be at peace with Him."

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Remarkable. But more remarkable still is that the Travers' family never backed down from calling out the killers for what they had done to their darling daughter, their sister.

Shortly before Joan's death, Ann Travers said that she was feeling emotional about the anniversary of the murder "and her killers' 33rd year without accountability". Her words should burn into our souls. This thing happened. On our streets. A young teacher was shot in the back as she walked home from Mass.

For 33 years, the apologists for murder have been attempting to justify it - it was regrettable, a mistake, it had to be viewed in context. One commentator even described Mary's murder as akin to collateral damage of a car accident.

For 33 years, the Travers family has had to fight to remind people that it was none of these things. It was deliberate. And, more to the point, it was a moral abomination.

For 33 years, the Travers family has been fighting for justice and being repeatedly retraumatised.

Tom wanted only to see his daughter's killers behind bars. Instead he lived long enough to see the one person serving time for the murder walk free under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

Maybe it's a blessing he didn't live to see Mary McArdle, who had been sentenced to life for her part in his daughter's murder, appointed as a special adviser by Sinn Fein. But Ann was ready to fight her sister's corner, eventually ensuring former prisoners convicted of serious offences could not be appointed to such highly paid posts.

Ann's and Mary's brother Paul also appealed to Sinn Fein to work with the Historical Enquiries Team and to "embrace the need for genuine truth".

There are those who resent people like the Travers family. For some, it would have indeed been better had the whole family been wiped out that day. They believe people like Ann make it difficult to move on, to indulge in communal brainwashing. They want to talk about 'legacy' as opposed to saying the word - victims. It was, they argue, so long time ago. People drove Ford Cortinas then and watched Aspel And Company on TV.

For those people, Ann Travers is a nightmare writ large - a braveheart who is media savvy and relentless, neither brought low by her own health battles nor the vile abuse of social media trolls or real-time threats. She is an extraordinary woman, warm, funny and kind.

Nor should the passage of time mean that we should blithely forget the thousands of grieving relatives who don't have her gifts, who must bear their grief in silence and make their vigils quietly.

Thousands were murdered here by self-appointed executioners, who killed their neighbours on the most spurious of metaphysical grounds.

Those facts cannot be ducked yet saying them out loud is taken to be outrageous and 'offensive'.

Actually, what is offensive is the grubby nature of those killings - the murder of a teacher, an unfortunate drunk man dragged into a black taxi behind Central Library, a coalman going about his work, nuns travelling on country road, an old man watching football on a pub TV, a man strapped to a lorry filled with explosives… and, literally, hundreds and hundreds of others.

You don't get around those with 'big talk' about causes and 'casualties' and judicial inquiries that run for years with no outcomes and talk about 'legacy strategies'. These can only be confronted face on.

The only thing that makes sense is the thing our political bosses like least of all. As a society, we need to engage directly with Ann Travers and other relatives, survivors, victims, the maimed - all those we have let down so horrendously. Can we really afford to wait for the 'centenary of the Troubles' in the trust all those who lived through it will be dead, before we start to come to terms with what we did to each other?

Our history already shows that horror can't be buried deeply enough or with enough concrete over it or for long enough to keep it from poisoning the present.

There needs to be a platform for the people who have lost most to be allowed to tell the rest of us what we need to do to make amends to them.

That's the starting point.

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