Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: The beneficiaries of Patrick Kielty's monumental generosity don't feel the need to return it however

It's a tribute to the innate decency of this place that somehow survived the Troubles that it could produce men of the calibre of Patrick Kielty... but why should they have to carry so much of the burden of reconciliation?

There's a lot of poppycock talked about reconciliation. Michael Longley may be Northern Ireland's greatest living poet but even he was guilty of adding to it with his 1994 poem Ceasefire. In those famous lines he borrows the voice of Priam, legendary King of Troy, whose son Hector was killed by Achilles, and has him speak on behalf of grieving victims of the Troubles. "I get down on my knees and do what must be done," Priam declares, "and kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son."

The poem has been much praised, not least by that motley crew of former killers who now pose as peacemakers. These wolves in sheep's clothing love nothing more than making their victims so grateful for peace that they will kiss the hands of those who tormented them.

Not everyone will be able to forgive those who murdered their loved ones. Nor should they be put under social or moral pressure to do so.

Refusing to forgive those who committed unforgivable acts can be a deeply moral stance, too. That's why it was good to hear Patrick Kielty on yesterday's Nolan Show describe his own mixed feelings about the right way to treat those who unleashed some of the worst acts of sectarian violence.

He was on the radio to talk about BBC documentary My Dad, The Peace Deal And Me, in which he revisited the murder of his father in Dundrum, Co Down, by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988. The stand-up comedian was only a schoolboy at the time. The Good Friday Agreement would not be signed for another 10 years. A further two decades have gone by since.

The programme was made to mark the 20th anniversary of the peace deal, which will officially pass next Tuesday, April 10, without even a working government at Stormont to show for it.

"Have you forgiven the people who killed your dad?" asked Nolan. Kielty hesitated for a moment, before admitting: "I would never, and I'm not going to, shake the hand, or give a hug to the people who killed my dad, and say: 'That was okay, I forgive you.'" He went on: "Everybody has a price for peace, but peace is always about three or four miles up the road from where the most reasonable person can actually get to. Can I go the three or four miles to look them in the eye and shake them by the hand? I don't think I can."

Kielty still thought that the sacrifice which he and other bereaved families had to make in voting for the Good Friday Agreement was the right thing to do.

His honesty was commendable. He was not pretending that forgiveness was a magic spell that made everything all right.

Reconciliation, he acknowledged, was a personal thing. It works differently for everyone.

Former First Minister Arlene Foster said on the same documentary that she voted against the Agreement in 1998 because she thought it "anathema" for convicted terrorists to walk free without serving their full sentences.

She will no doubt be asked how that stance can be squared with her willingness to meet and work with loyalist paramilitaries in her capacity as DUP leader - and those are legitimate questions.

The point remains that her opposition to the Good Friday Agreement was not necessarily wrong, either. Forgiveness is meaningless when it becomes a requirement.

Those who could not back then, and still cannot, find it in themselves to do what Priam did in pardoning his son's killer are made to feel that they are themselves manifestations of the bitterness and inflexibility which fuelled the conflict - and that's the ultimate kick in the teeth.

They're not monsters for being unable to put the past behind them.

In fact, there's something chilling and unnatural about the willingness of many of those who were most intimately involved in the violence to now move on without a backward glance. Did it really leave such an insignificant stain on their souls?

Patrick Kielty had much more to say that was worth hearing, but he did undoubtedly struggle when Nolan asked him: "Why have we not moved on?" Kielty's answer was: "Because the pain is still there." And that's certainly part of the equation.

The real problem, though, is not that pain exists, but that it remains unresolved.

A line was drawn through history in 1998.

That was then. This is now.

But there was not sufficient recognition back then that the future might fester if the past was not confronted honestly.

And it hasn't been. In voting for the Good Friday Agreement, with all that it meant in terms of prisoner releases and the arrival into the power-sharing, government of those whose previous political activity had been conducted with guns and bombs, the people of Northern Ireland together made a huge sacrifice.

Even with all the difficulties which have arisen since, it was still the right thing to do if, as Kielty said, we were to "move forward as a society".

But did the beneficiaries of this collective act of generosity return that monumental gesture by showing genuine remorse for what they'd done? They absolutely did not.

In July 2000 loyalist killer Michael Stone was released from the Maze after serving 13 of his 684-year sentence for six murders and five attempted murders.

He was scheduled for release on a Saturday, but, because there were no weekend releases he was instead made to stay behind bars until the Monday.

Outraged, he went to the High Court in Belfast to declare that he was "greatly distressed" at the prospect of being held for another 48 hours, claiming that he was being treated "unfairly, irrationally, and unlawfully".

Is this remorse? Is this appreciating the abundant and unselfish concessions which had been made by society in letting men such as him out at all, when natural justice proclaimed that they never taste freedom again?

Far from being humbled by his good fortune, Stone insisted on his release that the murders he committed had been "military operations" and declared: "I do not regret any fatalities that have occurred."

It's a remarkable testament to the innate decency that survived in Northern Ireland through the worst times that it could produce men of the calibre of Patrick Kielty, whose family endured so much and came out the other end with their humanity intact.

But it's asking too much of them that they have to carry so much of the burden of reconciliation, while killers and their political mouthpieces remain defiant and unrepentant.

That is the wound which remains unhealed.

And not talking about it will never be the solution.

Belfast Telegraph

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