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Why courage of Peadar Heffron in standing alone reminds us where our deeper and better values lie

History books will salute ex-PSNI officer as a real hero, not the dissidents who tried to murder him, writes Gail Walker

Peadar Heffron

It's not necessary to labour all the points that arose from the extraordinary interview ex-PSNI officer Peadar Heffron gave to Joe Brolly.

It makes for sorry reading in several, harrowing ways, not least in the appalling injuries suffered by Peadar himself in a dissident booby-trap attempt to kill him in his car in January 2010 and for the quite shameful cold-shouldering he experienced from his team-mates at the Creggan Kickhams in Randalstown and other friends when his intention to join the PSNI had been made clear. And the fact that the ostracism continues even after the horrific effects of the attack and the personal cost he has paid are well known.

Those are certainly bleak paragraphs in Brolly's article. Those ostracisers inhabit a strange mindset that can laud Martin McGuinness on the one hand and pander to the self-regard of those he himself was moved to brand as "traitors" on the other.

That was no accident, or slip-of-the-tongue, either. The late Deputy First Minister understood very clearly that many Catholics had joined the PSNI precisely because - and Heffron makes this clear - there was a definite decision taken to endorse that structure of policing as a key part of the Belfast Agreement and as a final step towards the non-violent pursuit of political objectives, an approach for which Sinn Fein had been mandated at the polls time and again.

"I joined the PSNI as soon as it was formed," says Heffron, "because deep down, naively, I thought this was the little bit I could do ... you're not allowed to laugh when I say this, Joe ... to help this island become one again. I thought if policing here was normalised, we could in due course join with the gardai and then further down the line, who knows ... "

The attack on Heffron was an attack on the legitimacy of Sinn Fein to speak for its electorate and it was that, as much as the human price Heffron and others paid for believing what they were told by people they voted for, which led to McGuinness's defining comment.

As regards his motives, one only has to read the account of how and by what embarrassing means Heffron was ostracised to understand where courage and principle lay and where mean-spiritedness and narrow-mindedness lay. I doubt that any of his team-mates will be rising to the microphone in future years to describe the part they played in cold-shouldering Heffron.

"Weren't you a member of the club at that time, daddy?" will not be a question eagerly anticipated round the Christmas turkey in years to come.

It is very important to hear Heffron's story, as it is important to hear the stories of all those forced out, blanked, slandered, beaten and injured, for marrying a Catholic, taking part in peace rallies, crossing the road to greet the other denomination, wearing a poppy, or not wearing one, and so on.

But it is also important to recognise that the motives which lead otherwise decent, hard-working fathers, brothers and sons, and daughters and mothers and sisters, to shun and barrack and "cut dead" even neighbours and friends of their own community in the street, have roots that run very deep indeed.

We know this because none of us are free of those roots. We feel the tug of tribal allegiance, however misguided, however shameful, however irrational and embarrassing, no matter our social status, or pretension.

You'd only have to suggest, to some of us feeling sympathy for Heffron, that there are ex-RUC officers living with life-changing injuries today as well, to find how quickly a gulf would open between people hitherto of one mind.

That's because this is a society emerging very slowly out of intense and intimate violent conflict where even those of us not directly engaged in it felt we had, nonetheless, "skin in the game", a kind of proxy interest.

That's why, two decades after the agreement, people not even born during the period of the Troubles, feel themselves implicated in the drama played out by their elders.

But it is also worth reflecting that, whether we like it or not, whether dissidents like it or not, whether his then team-mates like it or not, Heffron belongs to our future, not our past. He is one of those people whom, in decades to come, the culture will admire and salute as forward-thinkers and, in a very real sense, Irish heroes.

The bravery of his standing alone as his friends snubbed him is already an indication of whose side all our deeper and better values are on.

But the journey towards those values is a long one and many of us will not live long enough to see the end of it. It's not politicians who will make the important deals on our behalf.

It's ourselves, each one of us.

We need, deliberately and persistently, to keep making the gestures, keep going against gut instinct, keep crossing the lines - think what we like, but do the exact opposite - because the better society everyone really wants will only be built on those deliberate acts.

It won't arrive by accident, when none of us are looking, as if by magic.

It is important to report that Joe Brolly's article is an action against the gut instinct in itself, a further reflection by that charming and accomplished and very public individual on his own sense of identity and allegiance from deep within his community and its values.

I think, curiously, of the corny old movie High Noon. Does anyone remember it nowadays? A sheriff due to get married and retire is forced to make one last stand against gangsters arriving on the noon train. The law-abiding townsfolk think if only the sheriff would hurry up and go away, the gangsters would leave the town alone. Others think, with the gangster in charge, they would be better off. Gary Cooper looks for deputies. The only volunteers are a teenage boy and the town drunk. The parallels are non-existent, of course.

But who in fact would we rather be in this life? Standing beside the man or woman in the street against whom so much hate is directed? Or hiding behind the curtains, secretly hoping the loner gets what he or she has coming to them?

One of those attitudes demands real courage. I hope I'd have enough of it to step into the street with the likes of Peadar Heffron.

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