Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Bonfires of hate are an affront to human decency... they should be treated with full rigour of the law

It's a mistake to indulge people who spread this sort of filth. We should leave it to the courts. By Malachi O'Doherty

Banners are attached to a bonfire in the Bogside area of Londonderry (Niall Carson/PA)
Banners are attached to a bonfire in the Bogside area of Londonderry (Niall Carson/PA)

I'm not sure that I actually hate anybody. I know that I am annoying at times. I have enough Twitter stalkers to tell me that I am a fool, a traitor, a loathsome person, a disgrace to journalism, someone who has been bought off by the Queen's shilling, a hypocrite, a person with nothing of value to say.

I am, for some, only worth noticing for the sake of treating me as a target for their venom. One guy called me a "self-hating fool", yet he identified himself as a potato crisp bag. That's how proud he is of himself. And I get off lightly compared to friends.

Ann Travers gets some of the worst of it. Her sister Mary was murdered by the IRA in an ambush which the Historical Enquiries Team concluded was an attempt to kill her father and mother, too.

I once watched her father at work on the bench of the magistrates court in Belfast. One of the cases before him was of a young man caught in possession of cannabis. The man tried to contest the police evaluation of the portion of dope he'd been caught with.

Travers shut him up pretty sharply. He wasn't going to take the word of a young fellow in the dock before that of the police in assessing the street value of an illegal drug. Indeed, the guy's efforts to present a degree of expertise in the matter were only going to make him sound like an expert in the subject if they succeeded.

Another case that same day was a woman who had been caught shoplifting. Travers pointed out that she had been in front of him before. And he had already dealt with several cases that morning from the same shop. The security guards there were being particularly diligent.

Travers had only sympathy for the woman. He spoke to her in the most gentle tones and put the case aside to consider further.

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In short, he was a magistrate who knew that he was dealing with vulnerable human beings, wary enough of being bamboozled by the young dope smoker, but soft enough to know that a woman shoplifting might be suffering.

But Travers is often denounced on Twitter as a collaborator, when Ann refers to the murder of her sister. He gets called a paid agent of the British war machine, a legitimate target.

In this kind of treatment of Ann Travers there is malice, but there is also a great deal of ignorance. Quite simply, this society needed magistrates. It especially needed good and humane magistrates like Tom Travers.

And this wasn't then a society in which everything stopped for a war. The civil service and the institutions of the state, like health, education and normal policing, where possible, carried on in the face of threat. And Catholics made that possible.

In the early years of the Troubles, they knew that they might be discriminated against in employment. That was, indeed, one of the motives behind the civil rights campaign; not to bring down the state, but to assert the right to participate in it.

In the mid-1990s, I asked the Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, for his estimate of the number of people in the IRA. He gave me a figure of about 600 activists. At that time, the strength of the RUC was around 10,000, with 7% of them Catholic.

That was a disgraceful under-representation of the Catholic community in the police, but numerically it comes to a number larger than those who were in the IRA at that time.

And, yet, a story is told of a war in which the Catholics were the object of oppression and pogrom and rejected the state. And it is maybe excusable that younger people who have no recollection of the Troubles period might accept the propaganda that presents the past in that way.

I have heard people say, with poise and conviction, that Catholics only got the vote 50 years ago. Indeed, this was said in the House of Commons during a debate last year on abortion.

But if you engage in argument with the propagandists and the trolls on Twitter, you only draw them out further, allow them to get more hits on the back of your account.

They get bigger audiences for their ignorance and their nastiness by addressing it at people with more followers than themselves. Sometimes the trolls have so few followers at the start of an attack as to suggest that the account was only set up for that purpose.

So, what do you do? The misrepresentation of the past has to be answered. Danny Morrison said last week that the violence on August 14, 1969, started when nationalists on a sit-down protest were attacked by the massed ranks of the RUC and loyalists, and that the IRA had bravely held them back in case they attacked St Peter's pro-cathedral.

He says they saved one side of the Falls Road from being burnt. He says he was in bed by 10.30, when the shooting started, so may be genuinely ignorant of the fact that much of the burning of the Falls was carried out by republicans and their supporters.

It would, indeed, be an irony if Danny, the great propagandist, had launched his own career as a republican activist on the back of someone else's lies about that night.

We need two responses to this. One is simply the fullest and most accurate telling of the stories of the past. That may be provided for in the Stormont House Agreement.

When people tell their stories, inaccuracies creep in, but the broadest collation of accounts of those times is bound to represent the diversity of experience and opinion and would hopefully drown out the myth-making.

The other problem is knowing how to deal with hatred. The old advice of parents to a child, when stung by name-calling, was to ignore it. Don't let them see they have got to you. Rise above it.

This summer, we saw more hateful bonfire signs, sneering at the dead. This type of thing has been with us a long time.

I remember a pirate radio station playing a supposed request - Are You Lonesome Tonight? - for the family of a murder victim.

My fear now is that we have reacted in the wrong way to this filth and shown the people who purvey it that there is an easy way for them to get onto the front pages.

Ideally, such atrocities against human decency would be dealt with quietly, under the law.

Arrests would be made discreetly after the event and while crazed and vicious loons are trying to get our attention we would spare them as little as possible.

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