The 40th anniversary of the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings in London and the 50th anniversary of Belfast’s Bloody Friday rolled round this week, and all these decades later we still don’t know how to bring a scintilla of healing to our collective wounds.
Such is the partisan nature of this place now that even the dead and injured are scrapped over. Sympathy is selective. Quasi-justifications are fired into cyberspace by anonymous gloaters desperate for another go. Young ‘ceasefire soldiers’ who missed it first time round.
Four soldiers of the Blues and Royals and seven bandsmen were murdered by the IRA in London on July 20, 1982. At least 51 people were injured. Seven horses were also killed. Nine people were murdered in Belfast on July 21, 1972, when the IRA detonated 22 bombs across the city. Another 130 were seriously hurt.
Our Troubles’ dead are like a comet coming towards us. At the front, visible, those atrocities that claimed multiple victims. At the tail, out there in space, all those lonely souls, Catholic, Protestant and neither, who were startled in empty streets, knew fleeting horror at their front doors, pleaded in their taxis or were mercifully oblivious before they were blown to eternity and are now remembered only by their families. Reporters don’t knock their doors when anniversaries come round.
There are a handful of exceptions, such as the headline-making cases where the killers were State forces. Of course those families deserve truth and justice, but every single family deserves that. There’s a perception of a hierarchy of victims.
In 2002, the IRA offered “sincere apologies” to the families of those killed on Bloody Friday, but it has never given any information about the attacks. Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald in Australia spoke about “uniting our people” in a “new Ireland that we must build” but party members hero-worship those behind heinous crimes. This is no way to build a new society. Simple fact.
It is important to recognise the statement made by Taoiseach Micheal Martin on the anniversary of Bloody Friday. No atrocity is diminished in impact because another one is highlighted and its victims mourned. Mr Martin was able to condemn and condole across the range of our dreadful past. These were significant words.
We have a rum lot at Stormont on such matters. They unite to condemn the woeful legacy bill working its way through Westminster, but in nearly 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement have never found a way to nudge society onwards towards reconciliation.
Yes, sectarian murders are thankfully a rare occurrence, but Northern Ireland is awash with bigotry.
There’s another perception too, that some sectarianism is called out more than others. It was edifying to see the widespread disgust among the unionist community for the bonfire effigies and poster and flag burning and the disgraceful song sung by Orange Order members about the murder of Michaela McAreavey. But when some fans of Limerick, All-Ireland hurling champions, belt out the ballad about IRA man Sean South? There are those in broader nationalism who enter into silky explanations of why it’s not the same. Let me also state clearly, the GAA plays a positive role and, like the Orange Order, should not be demonised for the actions of a few.
Then there are those other occasions when crowds chant, “Ooh ah up the ‘RA”. Only the hardest heart or a deluded fool would look at images of Bloody Friday and think such a chorus was okay.
The image we have of ourselves now, the one we like to export so outsiders believe our peace process has led us to sunny uplands, hides grim irony. We love telling ourselves that the sectarian tropes immortalised on the famous blackboard from Derry Girls, now in the Ulster Museum, are a thing of the past. The truth is they abound everywhere.
An interviewee, in his 50s, recently told me how his generation had been traumatised by growing up in the Troubles, yet marvelled how this was rarely spoken about today.
He reflected on his schoolboy self passing a murder scene moments after the shots had been fired and staring at the wheel of the victim’s motorbike still spinning; the bombing of his hometown and the stark realisation that a shop he’d frequently visited was now destroyed. The familiar had been rendered grotesque; he’d picture himself at the counter buying a gift for his mother when the bomb went off. What if?
At one of the Bloody Friday memorial events, Fr Roger Parker recalled his 14-year-old brother Stephen as a “young man full of life, full of fun”. Still 14. Hugh O’Hare spoke of burying his wife Margaret on their 12th wedding anniversary. “That is part of your life. It is there and it will never leave you until you are six feet under,” he said. Survivor Philip Gault talked of staring at what was left of his foot, that of a nine-year-old boy, every morning when he gets up. Still in the moment.
Moving, too, were the recollections of many people from all backgrounds — the anxious wait to see if a mother would return from the shops, the relief when she stepped off the bus; the plumes of smoke rising; a father driving an ambulance. People wanted to talk about it.
Time brings important, fresh and profoundly sad perspectives.
I often think of a school chum whose parent was jailed for a loyalist atrocity. As kids, we were thoughtlessly cruel, needling them about where their parent was. Their story isn’t mine to tell, but I see now they were a victim too. A different type of casualty to the friends whose relatives were murdered, to the wan faces at the doorsteps that I stood on as a reporter, but collateral damage.
There are those who say we shouldn’t talk about our past. Indeed, not doing so would suit some. In fact, we need to talk more, find out what happened, who did what. As best as we can, provide a catharsis for those left behind.
We want to live in a different place. And we do. Yet even as the July sunshine beats down on our transformed streets, we need to recognise that any hope of a future must be built on an open and acknowledged past. Anything less leaves a legacy of resentment, hatred and revenge — the things that really never went away, you know.