Belfast Telegraph

Damien Trainor and Philip Allen showed what is possible when we refuse to allow tribal politics to overshadow things that matter most

The senseless murders of two friends - one Catholic, the other Protestant - shattered the community of Poyntzpass, but ultimately allowed estranged political cultures to walk together in a shared, sympathetic response, writes Malachi O'Doherty

It happened just a month before the Good Friday Agreement, but reconciliation seemed as far away then as ever. Part of the problem was that the men who led the two big parties on whom agreement depended were not getting on.

News had come through of the double killing. It seemed pertinent that one was a Catholic and one a Protestant.

Phillip Allen and Damien Trainor were friends who died side by side, shot by a loyalist killer with no conceivable political result of value that any sane person could see.

The loyalist project, if there was one, was simply to advertise their existence though bloodshed. Most loyalist groups were nominally on ceasefire at the time, though there had been a horrific spate of killings in January of that year too.

Perhaps, seeing agreement approach, knowing that they had minimal political representation, they wanted to remind everyone of their existence.

And that a deal which would involve prisoner releases would have to include them too.

If so, there is a grotesque irony in people killing to insist on getting out of jail. Usually it works the other way round.

The murder of a Catholic and a Protestant together had a symbolic importance that relied on the presumption that this was a rarity. It wasn't, really. Considering a cross-community friendship as an uncommon and beautiful thing leads us to suppose that a political agreement which may have made such friendships easier was in itself a miracle.

But the friendship of Philip and Damien was not a great wonder. This is not to demean it. It is a good thing when young men bond, support and look out for each other, but I am sure that before they were killed people in Poyntzpass did not scratch their heads at the marvel of a Protestant and a Catholic being close.

It was a normal enough thing; a bit more difficult for those who lived in closed communities separated by peace lines, but not elsewhere.

But good came of the symbol.

The fact that one was a Catholic and one a Protestant posed the opportunity for the leaders of the estranged political cultures to walk together in a shared sympathetic response.

At a time when the men were uneasy together, practically anything that got them away from the talks to spend time in each other's company was going to be a help.

The political leaders of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party were able to draw together in sympathy for the families at a time when they were bristling like old dogs at the sight of each other.

Seamus Mallon and David Trimble had great minds and the breadth of political imagination that the times called for, but they did not like each other.

Still, they both headed for Poyntzpass on the day after the killings and they offered a hopeful gesture in walking together from the home of one of the dead to the home of the other. This is what peace was supposed to be about, after all, two communities making space for each other, acquiring the ability to empathise with each other; understanding each other's needs well enough to be able to make political deals and settle old divisions.

Trimble and Mallon had the advantage that neither was tainted with a paramilitary past; neither had rationalised other murders, neither could be accused of being hypocritical or merely pragmatic in expressing their shock over these killings.

Although the outworking of the deal they would make a month later was the ascent of the more extreme parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP and Sinn Fein, it would have been harder for the ultimate benefactors of the deal to present themselves as the peacemakers on such an occasion.

Sinn Fein had not only rationalised past murders but fully endorsed them.

The DUP had been in a more equivocal space, having sat with loyalist paramilitaries during the Ulster Workers Council Strike and even donned red berets to identify themselves with Ulster Resistance.

One of the slogans around the peace making was that you didn't make peace with friends but with enemies. Actually, it was easier for the larger parties when the depth of enmity between them was less vehement and deadly than between the outliers. And that's important.

The deal could not have been made with Sinn Fein and the DUP in the positions they are in now, representing majorities in their respective electorates.

The real test of whether the Agreement has worked, whether the formula of Good Friday is an adequate foundation for reconciliation, and has taken us forward, is whether what would have been impossible then is possible now.

And with the DUP and Sinn Fein currently at odds, unable to restore the Assembly, the augurs aren't good.

Mallon says the outworking of the agreement has yet to happen.

Maybe he is right, but maybe the truth is that agreement was possible back then because we had a middle ground of sorts, commanded by two large parties which did not represent the worst sectarian and violent attitudes of the time, but the 'moderates'.

Today the middle ground is the Alliance Party and the Greens, along with the remnants of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, and they do not have the clout together to secure the centre.

Mallon's theory will be vindicated if Sinn Fein and the DUP can pull together.

The theory behind the Agreement was that political necessity would force them into co-operation. For a time it seemed to, but they have rediscovered another old truth in the last year, that contention with each other is rewarded with votes from an electorate which likes to see them at odds with each other.

The question now is whether the electorate will continue to encourage their animosity for each other or discover that it needs them to patch up their differences and work together.

New realities may impose themselves.

For how long will people continue to assert that the most important political challenge of our time is to persuade the DUP to agree to an Irish Language Act?

Other issues will overtake this, and parties which then appear oblivious to new urgencies may quickly find themselves irrelevant.

For how long will people continue to demand that the DUP holds out against an Irish Language Act, though the hospitals are congested and new concerns about the quality of justice here bring people on to the streets?

We should remember Damien Trainor and Philip Allen now, to remind us that they were not rare and heroic exemplars of cross-community amity, but that they were normal people who shared concerns that were not superseded or overshadowed by tribal politics.

And we should get on with life, and the things that matter most day by day, as they deserved to and should have been allowed to.

Belfast Telegraph

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