Belfast Telegraph

George's brother was murdered in 1988 - 30 years on heartache is as raw as ever this Christmas

Staring at the empty chair - thousands of Northern Ireland families will be missing a loved one this Christmas

By George Larmour

Maybe it's just because I am getting older, but time seems to fly by so quickly now in my pensioner years. It's hard to believe another Christmas is almost here again.

I managed to untangle last year's Christmas lights and, as usual, had to buy some new sets. Nothing seems to last. Anyway, I love Christmas and the tree looks glorious with its shiny baubles, tinsel and festive angel.

A white Christmas always adds the finishing touches to this magical time of year. Just some snow on Christmas Day would have been enough. My old joints don't like a prolonged winter chill.

I managed to avoid the chaotic, commercial madness of Black Friday, but I suppose I will have to venture into town for some last-minute gifts. No doubt the shops will be bursting with others doing the same.

Mums and dads frantically scurrying from store to store, searching for the latest, much-hyped, must-have, over-priced (out-of-stock) toy or electronic game for their wide-eyed children filled with anticipation at what Santa might bring them for "being good" again this year.

Sadly, some men lost the "being good" innocence of their Santa-loving childhoods and, as adults, decided that murder was a better game to play in their twisted, blood-stained logic and cruel disregard for life. Even innocence doesn't seem to last.

For many families throughout the UK and Ireland and even further afield, whose lives were changed forever by our casually referred to Northern Ireland "Troubles", the cheery festive season of goodwill can be a difficult time, tinged with mixed emotions.

The traditional gifts of thick woollen socks or comfy slippers will still not cushion the blow or soften the pain as they remember their loved ones who were so brutally slaughtered. The empty chairs around their Christmas tables are a heartbreaking, constant reminder of their pain and loss.

There is no time limit on grief and even many years later the festive lights in many homes remain dimmer, as those families continue to deal with that dreaded knock on their door they received, informing them of that sudden, unexpected amputation from their lives.

And, like amputees who say they can feel that unbearable phantom pain in their missing limb long after the event, those families cannot touch their pain, or hold it, or soothe it, but can feel it in their broken hearts every day. Unfortunately, unlike our Christmas lights, the pain does last.

I know how it feels to stare at that empty chair. Silent tears helped wash away some of my own pain since that fateful night on October 11, 1988, when my brother John was killed in my family-run ice cream parlour, Barnam's World of Ice Cream in Belfast.

And I'm sure my mum's tears when John was killed are no different to the tears of a mother of a dead IRA, INLA, UDA, or UVF member. All murders are wrong. I have no argument with the many heartbroken mums left behind to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. There has to be a better way.

However, some people would prefer to rewrite history to suit their own agendas. In doing so there is the danger that this sanitised version of the truth will ensure that history will repeat itself.

I hope and pray that the repetitive cycle of our historical hatred will not continue; that our children and grandchildren might learn from our generation's mistakes and never have to tell such stories.

During his recent farewell speech, outgoing Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said (referring to 1983, the year he was first elected leader) "the war in the north was raging" and, in follow-up interviews, "I understand the pain of IRA victims".

The unpalatable and unvarnished truth that Mr Adams wishes to avoid is that my brother wasn't in what anyone could justifiably describe as a "war" that night in 1988 when he was killed.

Unless Mr Adams considers that my brother being ambushed and murdered while helping serve ice cream to innocent children was a legitimate act of war.

And Mr Adams has no right to suggest he "understands" my elderly mum and dad's broken-hearted grief, pain and despair at losing their son that resulted in their premature deaths. He doesn't.

Perhaps Mr Adams would prefer we all viewed his rewritten, selective memory version of life through his nostalgic "freedom fighter" spectacles.

Whenever I hear that label I am always reminded of the late, great American satirical comedian George Carlin, who scathingly and cynically asked: "If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fires, what do freedom fighters fight?"

As many victims' families gather around their individual Christmas tables this year, with the empty chairs where their loved ones once sat, I wish them all well.

I hope their new twinkling Christmas tree lights remain bright and their own happy memories of those they loved and still miss deeply help wipe away their own silent tears.

I also wonder if all men of violence will look at the smiling faces of their own family members around their Christmas tables and take a moment to reflect on the gratuitous hurt they caused to so many families.

For those who were lucky enough not to have their lives touched by evil during our Troubles, be thankful as you unwrap your gifts amid laughter and comforting family hugs and spare a thought for families everywhere who face a Christmas table with empty chairs.

And I sincerely hope our squabbling, point-scoring, part-time (but full-salaried) politicians, who have still failed to fulfil their long-overdue promise to deal with the legacy of our troubled past, spare a moment to think of the many empty chairs at Christmas tables and remember those victims' family members they have let down badly for yet another Christmas.

George Larmour is the author of They Killed The Ice Cream Man: My Search For The Truth Behind My Brother John's Murder (Colourpoint Books)

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