Belfast Telegraph

David Clements: It's time we all got rid of the cosh

Liam Neeson landed in hot water for saying he wanted revenge when a friend was raped. Rev Dr David Clements, whose RUC Reservist father, Billy, was murdered by the IRA, understands the NI actor's rage, but says that vengeance is not the answer

Ballymena actor Liam Neeson talks to Robin Roberts on Good Morning America about his remarks on his wish for revenge after a friend was raped
Ballymena actor Liam Neeson talks to Robin Roberts on Good Morning America about his remarks on his wish for revenge after a friend was raped
Constable William James Clements (52): Killed in an IRA attack on Ballygawley Police (RUC) Station 7.12.1985
Constable William James Clements (52): Killed in an IRA attack on Ballygawley Police (RUC) Station 7.12.1985
Constable William James Clements (52): Killed in an IRA attack on Ballygawley Police (RUC) Station 7.12.1985

It is a few weeks now since Liam Neeson gave that interview, in which he described an incident, decades ago, when a friend of his was raped by a black man. He didn't say, as far as I know, where this incident took place. I have just assumed it was not in Ballymena.

What he did talk about was his sense of rage and desire for revenge, such that, for about a week, he carried with him a cosh in the hope that some random black man (almost certainly not the rapist) would provoke a fight, so that he could exact some kind of revenge.

There was an avalanche of comment - most, though not all, of it fiercely critical of Neeson. One piece that took a different line was by Gail Walker in this newspaper. The final sentence read: "So, inadvertently, the Ballymena man has begun an uncomfortable conversation we all should be having - not in Hollywood, or New York, or London, but right here. In Northern Ireland. Right now."

I, too, had been struck by Liam Neeson's comments and felt it was such a shame, though sadly predictable, that the howls from the virtue-signallers would lead most to miss the bigger point (that is not to say that condemning racism isn't important).

But what have I to say that might be helpful? I am not more intelligent, or articulate, than the average bloke, but I have tried to reflect on my own experiences over the years.

The most poignant was the murder of my father, Billy, over 33 years ago. He was a hardworking man who provided for his family. Born and bred on the Shankill Road in Belfast, but regularly found praying with nuns in the convent in Omagh, he saw his work as serving the community. His uniform was bottle-green and included some equipment he was not particularly comfortable with, but it was part of the job.

On the dark night when he was killed, he was shot twice; once from a few metres away, then again as he lay on the ground from a few millimetres. The organisation that killed him operated a kind of shoot-to-kill policy.

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Over the years, I have sometimes been asked: "How did I feel at that time?" With the passing of time, some memories blur, while others remain vivid. I suppose I had some of the same feelings that Liam Neeson described in his recent interview when his friend told him she had been raped.

My deepest feelings of rage were not for my dead father, or for myself, but for my crying mother, who had been cruelly robbed of her life partner, and for my younger sisters, who would not have their daddy to see them grow up. Then, some seven years later, I took my newborn daughter (the first grandchild) to the little country graveyard. As I held her in my arms, introducing her to granda, tears like the ones I can taste now as I type streamed down my face.

The feelings of rage were much diminished, though they had not disappeared - and they still have not. The newer feelings were mostly just sadness and frustration; frustration at the futility of it all. Billy would have been such a wonderful granda. There are thousands who should have been bouncing grandchildren on their knees.

What about thoughts of revenge? Was I tempted to borrow Neeson's cosh and go out looking for a Catholic, or a republican? No. Why did that thought never cross my mind? Here are a few reasons.

It was the way I was brought up. There were times I remember family members (including my father) expressing anger at atrocities that had happened in the area, or to people we knew, but I never heard talk about revenge. Justice and improved security, yes, but not revenge.

In the days after my father's murder, my mother gave several moving interviews, calling for no retaliation - as many before and since have done. Sadly, the Troubles continued.

Another reason was my Christian faith. It is the same faith my father had, though in my mid-teens I had chosen it for myself. That faith tells me that I am a sinner who has been forgiven by God. His grace holds me in the midst of anger and rage and, yet, somehow, delivers me from bitterness.

His grace enabled me to pray for those who had committed the dreadful crime. I still wanted justice, though, as far as I know, no one was ever arrested. Certainly, no one was charged and convicted. Again, my faith helps with this.

The story is not yet finished. God, who will one day judge the living and the dead, will have the final word on the question of justice. I am content to leave that with Him. That is not to say that I just sit and wait. There are things to be done. For about 25 years now, I have served on the management board of the WAVE Trauma Centre. In other ways, in both Church and society, I have tried to contribute in some small way to the welfare of victims of the Troubles.

I hope I have been able to pour a little oil on the troubled waters of bitterness and revenge, and rub a little balm on some of the painful sores.

We do need honest, healing conversations to get us to a better place. These can be difficult for all of us. I have often been struck by how those who have been the most grievously injured are the ones who are most generous and are even willing to forgive and work the hardest for reconciliation.

On the other hand, I have often found that those who are two or three steps removed from the immediate impact of the atrocity are the ones most likely to seek revenge, Liam Neeson being a case in point.

It's time for all of us to get rid of the cosh.

Rev Dr David Clements is minister of Carrickfergus Methodist Church. He is a member of the management board of the WAVE Trauma Centre

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