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William Graham: Like our peace, it's still imperfect, but we must hold on to Agreement

More than 40 years since he witnessed carnage on the streets of Belfast, William Graham believes there is hope for the future


A bomb explodes in a stationery shop in Royal Avenue in Belfast in 1976

A bomb explodes in a stationery shop in Royal Avenue in Belfast in 1976

A bomb explodes in a stationery shop in Royal Avenue in Belfast in 1976

It was a morning in the late 1970s when I arrived at the scene of a bomb explosion in central Belfast… and there was a terrible silence. No birds flew in the air. Smoke drifted and I could smell explosives and burning flesh. Four dead - two civilians and two bombers.

It was on January 13, 1976. I was a young reporter in the Belfast Telegraph newsroom when I heard the boom of a bomb explosion close by in North Street arcade and ran across the street to report on the casualties.

In those days we had several editions of the Telegraph that had to be updated. Such was the carnage that the police initially told me there were six dead. It was a heartbreaking job for the first responders piecing together the body parts.

This was the house of horrors that was Northern Ireland in those days.

I also recall in the late Seventies being caught up in an IRA bomb in the Belfast Telegraph building. On trying to flee I suffered shards of glass in my head and was taken to the Mater Hospital.

Minor injuries and shock.

The real tragedy: Joseph Paton was injured working in the locker room above the newspaper loading bay. The BT worker, who had been with the newspaper for over 20 years, died four days later in hospital.

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The next morning I turned up for work because I knew that this was a case of freedom of the Press and we had to get an edition out, broken presses or not.

Those were the days of mayhem and countless names of the dead and injured.

I remember the name John Patch. He was a cleaner in the Belfast Telegraph building amongst other jobs and I often took the opportunity to speak to him, just to say hello, in the newsroom.

My desk was just in front of my news editor, the late Norman Jenkinson. John and Norman... friends with a great sense of humour.

John Patch was abducted on November 13, 1976 on his way home by UDA/UVF men, savagely tortured and shot dead.

Also I recall the names John Maguire and Charles Corbett, murdered on October 30, 1976. They were killed by the UVF and were both Belfast Telegraph van men.

I mention these names and events as I consider the horror of Northern Ireland then and how the north has been transformed in an imperfect peace situation 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement.

As a semi-retired journalist and voluntary community worker I now live in Rostrevor, not Belfast, and have been in my adopted home village for several decades.

Today I spend time working on projects such as the local Arts A Wonder Collective initiative bringing together Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders from Belfast, London and Dublin to engage in dialogue.

The collective, which is led by Catherine Bescond-Sands and her husband, the folk singer and peace activist Tommy Sands, has already held a number of important private conferences.

These conferences have shown that people of different faiths can come together and break bread together... a lesson for our politicians in trying to build a peaceful inclusive society. We aim to create space for transformative dialogue, to promote religious understanding and respect; to listen to the narrative of the other; and to harness the potential of the arts for healing and mutual understanding.

The collective is currently working on an evolving document titled 'The Rostrevor Declaration'.

It refers to the need to rehumanise rather than dehumanise community relations by reminding members of our believing communities of the positive characteristics of other faiths, while protecting total academic freedom and respectful free speech.

On my way recently to meet Senator George Mitchell (chair of the Good Friday Agreement) I noticed dozens of children at Newry bus station heading to their different schools. A joyful cacophony of laughter and chat.

I wondered what these fresh-faced young ones with their smartphones thought about the Agreement two decades on? They, after all, will be the next generation of politicians and journalists.

We will hand over to them a Northern Ireland as a better place than it was, but they will have lots of work to do to build the existing imperfect peace.

Rostrevor itself has become a special meeting place for all kinds of cross-community work.

The Economist correspondent Bruce Clark in an article refers to the village of Rostrevor, just north of the Irish border, as a place where the cultures of the two parts of Ireland now mingle agreeably.

Clark writes on the Infacts website: "These days, William Graham says, he finds himself 'looking out over the mountains and the sea and giving thanks for an imperfect Agreement which brought an imperfect peace'.''

Writing on Brexit, Clark noted: "For its current tranquillity, the immediate hinterland of Rostrevor saw some of the bloodiest events during the so called Troubles: bombs, sectarian murders, attacks on the security forces. That should be a sobering thought for anybody who is prepared to imperil an imperfect peace because they want a 'clean' extraction from Europe."

When I look across Carlingford Lough from my living room window I see the Cooley Mountains in the Irish Republic which I feel I can almost touch … as part of Europe from another part of Europe, Northern Ireland at present.

Who know what the future holds?

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, I believe it is worth holding to the structures of the Good Friday Agreement, 20 years on, in our imperfect peace.

As the Ulster poet John Hewitt also once said: "Bear in mind these dead.''

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