Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Kielty showed our imperfect peace, but we must not forget the lives that were saved

BBC documentary put spotlight on sacrifice of last 20 years, but we've also enjoyed gains, writes Gail Walker

Patrick Kielty
Patrick Kielty
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

Twenty years of Good Friday Agreement 'peace'? I've mixed feelings and I suspect that's true of many people. The past two decades have not been plain sailing, joy, happiness or - as the very first page of the Agreement called for - a time of true reconciliation with our neighbours.

Yet we are changing, albeit tortuously. One minute embracing change, the next clinging to old tribal certainties even more fiercely. Sometimes our 'reconciliation' has been through gritted teeth, with a manic gleam in our eye.

When I think back to 1998, it's the personal that's foregrounded. My dad was still alive. I'd no idea what was upstream - losing other relatives, seeing friends fall ill and die young. Good times too, both personally and professionally.

I do remember the feelgood factor that heralded the Agreement. To quote our Poet Laureate of the time, 'Mama told me there'd be days like this...'

But that didn't include interviewing an RUC widow, sitting in her kitchen surrounded by photos of her late husband and once happy family occasions, listening to her anger at the proposed deal. And all the relatives of the innocent dead, from both sides and none, many of whom could not believe the orphan and widowmakers were about to walk out of prison.

So, optimism, yes - but also a palpable sense of hurt and betrayal.

And the strangeness of it all: this is how 30-plus years of hatred, murder and mayhem ends? With a glossy brochure shoved through your letterbox and Bono triumphantly holding up the arms of a rather embarrassed David Trimble and John Hume?

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It was a time of emotional confusion, of hope and unreality, of sadness, sorrow and bitterness.

And, in many ways, it still is. They say comedy is commonsense moving at a faster speed so perhaps it was inevitable that a comedian should forensically uncover the truth about our peace process. Patrick Kielty's documentary, My Dad, The Peace Deal And Me, captured rather brilliantly the aftermath of our peace.

Twenty years after the Agreement and 30 years after his father Jack was gunned down at his building business by a UVF/UDA gang, the programme didn't shirk the central issue: reconciling ourselves to the things we did to each other in the past in order to let go of that past.

Kielty accepts that, for the peace, his father's killers had to be released from prison but he doesn't - and can't - forgive them.

He didn't 'preach' about his own view nor talk down others. He sympathised and empathised with those who see it all rather differently.

The section that showed him talking with Arlene Foster in a small rural Fermanagh graveyard and looking at the headstones of friends, family, neighbours 'murdered by the IRA' - as the words etched out in granite stated - while serving in the RUC or the UDR, was a powerful reminder that it is hard to write off justice simply as the collateral damage of peace.

Kielty implicitly understood this. As he understood the chilling fact that loved ones were set up and possibly even gunned down by someone they knew.

Talking about his dad's murder, he recalled how "there was someone from the village involved, someone who knew him, and who met him and who decided he was next. I find that strange after all this time".

That is no small thing to demand from the bereaved just so the rest of us can 'move on'.

I'll be honest: these days I watch programmes about the Troubles or political debates about Northern Ireland only because it's vital for my job. Left to my own devices, no matter how fine the journalism - and the Kielty documentary was the BBC at its best - I wouldn't always switch on. It's not easy to watch former paramilitaries in the guise of moral philosophers, accepting 'responsibility' but not 'guilt' (or perhaps it's the other way round).

In much the same way as being sorry that rain falls from the sky, they will admit that they are sorry about the situation that forced them to do the things they did and tell us that we have to understand the context of the times.

In war, they say, terrible things are done by, er, the people who do them. Finally, for good measure, they throw in that, in the final analysis, they claim they did what we wanted them to do.

In other words, anything other than remorse, anything other than shame.

But, as Kielty's film devastatingly illustrated, this may indeed be precisely the price we have to pay for peace - having to listen to the self-justification of killers.

Kielty's willingness to listen to those who could try to justify shooting his father, to take on board the views of people he could quietly not only dismiss but actively hate, meant that, at the very least, we owed him our attention.

Kielty watched his father's killers walk free. He knew that - as happened on both sides - they were given a heroes' welcome.

That knowledge is not a small thing either. It would, on its own, be enough to send a person out looking for futile revenge.

That such things rarely happen here is another tribute to the values Kielty articulated so well and so honourably.

The Good Friday Agreement was, at best, a sketchily-drawn roadmap that would always, at some point, lead up blind alleys and pointless cul-de-sacs. Like many journalists back then, I started many days at work by heading out to knock on the door of the latest families to have been visited by sectarian horror. I was an onlooker at countless funerals.

It's impossible not to walk with the dead.

I remember my photographer's whispered words to a little boy, whose hairdresser father had been shot dead hours before on the Falls, as we stood in the living room while his mother looked for photographs: "You be a brave boy for your mummy."

Or the church-going man on the Shankill who refused, at gunpoint, to give a terror gang the keys of his car so they could exact revenge for a bomb: "You may shoot me, son. I know where I'm going."

We spend a lot of time, rightly, mourning the dead of the Troubles. We may need to spend even more time doing that before we're finished with that traumatic period. But we should also take time right now to remember all those who didn't die over the last two decades.

How many lives were saved by the Agreement? A hundred? Five hundred? Three thousand?

Look around - they are beside you in coffee shops, shopping centres, your workplace, your church.

The people who didn't get caught up in the bomb blast, who weren't shot leaving work, who didn't wander into the wrong street, who didn't end up as legitimate targets or handy messages to the other side.

They could be you and me.

That is not a small thing either.

Belfast Telegraph


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