Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: IRA bomber's family tribute snub a moment of moral courage that was all too fleeting

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It's hard not to raise an eyebrow at the latest statement issued by the father of Shankill Road bomber Thomas Begley, in which he dramatically went back on his earlier decision not to attend the 25th anniversary commemoration to his IRA bomber son, who killed himself, along with nine innocent victims, that terrible Saturday afternoon in 1993.

Billy Begley couldn't have been more unequivocal when he'd spoken just hours before, saying: "We have nothing to do with this event and prefer to remember our son in our own private way.

"We are very sorry for what happened - it was all wrong. Our family is not like that."

Billy's words were searingly personal, riven with sorrow and sympathy. To speak so bluntly about his own son took an enormous moral courage of a sort that has been all too rare in Northern Ireland, where family and tribal loyalties more often took precedence over doing what was right.

Begley's father rightly placed the emphasis on the real victims of that IRA attack, the youngest just seven years old, whose memories were being honoured with dignity this week.

Yesterday's follow up statement, in which Billy, speaking on behalf of the Begley family, said they would now be attending the ceremony at the republican plot in Milltown Cemetery, couldn't have been more contrasting.

It was formal, impersonal, the sort of pronouncement that might have been drawn up by a committee rather than a grieving father horrified by the evil that his son committed.

The first statement came direct from the heart. The second tiptoed forth from a much more guarded and watchful place.

One can only imagine the pressure which might have been exerted on the family from nameless, faceless people in the republican community to prompt such a dramatic about-turn, and anyone minded to criticise them for it would do well to put themselves in the shoes of families such as his.

They have to live daily alongside those who still unapologetically regard callous IRA killers as heroes.

It's telling that this sequence of events comes just one week after Anna Burns' novel Milkman, set during the darkest days of the Troubles, won the Booker Prize.

That book is relentless in its claustrophobic portrayal of a community - also Ardoyne, as it happens - under siege from within, constrained by "rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed".

Milkman was treated as history by the reviewers. How quickly that has proved naive.

The row also coincides with an ongoing public information campaign on TV to warn against the continuing danger from armed groups posing as defenders of their own people.

"Paramilitaries don't protect you," the slogan goes. "They control you."

That coercion can take many forms, from sideways glances and behind-hands whispers to actual violence.

In all its manifestations, the message is unmistakable.

The way in which this questionable commemoration for Thomas Begley has become symbolic of so much that's still wrong with Northern Irish society should act as a warning against complacency.

These people haven't gone away, you know, and they have no intention of doing so willingly.

Look at Sean Kelly, who served just seven years for the atrocity before being released under the Belfast Agreement.

If he had a decent bone in his body, Kelly would crawl back under the rock he came from and stay there, instead of popping up at every opportunity to justify his actions.

That's the absolute least Kelly's victims and their families deserve.

That he won't even give them that fragment of comfort shows the sinister extent of what those trying in small, quiet ways to say and do the right thing are up against.

Belfast Telegraph


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