Belfast Telegraph

People like the McGoldricks and Gordon Wilson the real heroes of Northern Ireland's fractured land

Police cite 'human rights' for not removing LVF posters - absurd inaction in contrast to the dignity of victims' families, says Henry McDonald

The German poet, playwright and exile from the Nazis, Bertolt Brecht once wrote: "Unhappy is the land that needs heroes." These words are uttered by Galileo in Brecht's play about the life and torments of the Italian Renaissance genius, but they can arguably apply to post-Troubles Northern Ireland too.

In certain parts of this society a generation growing up without any first-hand experience of life during the 1969-1997 conflict is surrounded by the iconography of "heroes".

On walls, posters, badges, scarves - even imprinted onto dinner plates - there are images of men (usually men) who have given all for "the cause".

In certain areas, particularly loyalist redoubts, the men in woolly faces, brandishing guns, are lionised and even ridiculously compared with the true heroes of global conflicts, like those from Ireland who died on the Western Front; this conflation a moral and political category mistake if ever there was one.

We are long ago "heroed-out" in this part of the world - especially those of us who enjoy the relative normality of life that the peace process and power-sharing have created over the last two-and-a-half decades.

Yet, perhaps Brecht (via Galileo) was wrong in one sense regarding heroes: sometimes the truly "heroic" are those who would never regard themselves as paragons of valour and whose small acts of mercy, kindness and humanity make them the true heroes of a fractured society.

When you search for those types of heroes you think of Gordon Wilson, who reached out to the organisation responsible for his daughter's murder in the Enniskillen atrocity of Poppy Day 1987, or Michael McGoldrick snr, whose son Michael was murdered by a sectarian killer less than a decade later. In this newspaper yesterday Bridie McGoldrick, the widow of Michael snr and mother of Michael, spoke movingly about the murder 20 years on. She revealed that she and her husband discussed a suicide pact after their son was shot dead by the Loyalist Volunteer Force in July 1996 at the height of the Drumcree marching dispute in Portadown.

However, instead of being driven to the edge, the couple decided to channel their grief into helping others - namely the poor children and the destitute of Moldova, a poverty-ridden state of the former Soviet Union, and Romania.

For the remainder of his life Michael snr worked with United Christian Aid, travelling every eight weeks to the far edge of Eastern Europe, putting roofs over the homes of poor families, raising money for projects to bring electricity to villages, putting in new roads and building bridges. As Stephanie Bell reported so movingly, Michael snr actually died from septicaemia on one of those mercy missions; he died while selflessly helping others.

It is worth rolling back to the time before Michael snr passed away when, in 2003, he had to sit listening to the trial of former loyalist supergrass Clifford McKeown, who was later found guilty of his son's murder. The victim's father had these words to say after McKeown was convicted at Belfast Crown Court: "The hurt in our country has to stop. At the time I forgave those that murdered Michael - and I still forgive them."

One of the most perverted facts to emerge from McKeown's trial was that the former informer and ex-Ulster Volunteer Force member claimed he had selected Michael McGoldrick as a target as a "birthday present" for LVF founder Billy Wright.

To "celebrate" someone's birthday by cold-bloodedly firing five bullets into a defenceless man's body has to be one of the most nauseating moments among many these other so-called "heroes" have been responsible for during the Troubles.

Of course, some in mid-Ulster are still lionising people like Wright, who never sought to distance himself from the McGoldrick murder and, indeed, according to McKeown's trial testimony, was planning to kidnap three Catholic priests who were then to be killed unless the Orange Order was allowed to pass down the Garvaghy Road in that terrible summer of 1996.

Wright's admirers have strung up banners across parts of Dungannon praising 'King Rat' and his gang's exploits in mid-Ulster and north Armagh, which included shooting young teenage girls at point-blank range in a mobile shop in Lurgan and firing a pistol into the body of 18-year-old Catholic Bernadette Martin at her Protestant boyfriend's home in Aghalee - the murder weapon being the same gun McKeown had used in the McGoldrick murder three years earlier.

Incredibly, a senior PSNI officer said the police could not take the pro-Wright banner down, because a section of the community in Dungannon might agree with the slogan on it, quoting 'King Rat' claiming a UVF shooting in Cappagh in 1991 was his "greatest work".

Even if three of the four men shot dead by the UVF in Boyle's bar belonged to the Provisional IRA, it matters not.

While there is ample evidence that the State continually subverted the rule of law - especially through its use of informant-killers in all the major paramilitary organisations throughout the Troubles - the principle of the rule of law had to remain the same.

The idea that no one beyond the lawmakers and the civil power can carry out retribution is a fundamental tenet of a democratic, civilised society.

The LVF - just like the UVF at Cappagh, or the IRA at Enniskillen - were judge, jury and executioner.

They had no legitimate right to wage war on anyone's behalf, or attack any quarter - including each other - whether at Cappagh or anywhere else.

Aside from principles like the rule of law, the right to a fair trial, legal representation and being innocent until proven guilty, there are other core elements that are needed to stop a society sliding into Thomas Hobbes' state of nature, where life will always be "nasty, poor, brutish and short".

One of those principles, or rather ways of being, which underpin a free, civil society is the humble virtue of quiet respect, tolerance and care for others.

Bridie McGoldrick's testimony to both her son and her husband illuminates that necessary virtue in every way.

"Unhappy is the land that needs heroes"?

Well, that depends on what kind of heroes you look up to. When it comes to the likes of Gordon Wilson or Michael McGoldrick, we need more such heroes to point us towards a better future.

Belfast Telegraph


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