Coming to terms with the past

Coming to terms with the past

MALACHI O’DOHERTY, one of Ireland’s leading political commentators and author of eleven books on the North of Ireland, in his regular column looks at how we can catalogue our recent history.

Malachi O'Doherty

What Northern Ireland needs is a Troubles museum. Not because it would be a tourist attraction — though it might — but because that is the only way of recording the story of the Troubles in a complete way.

During the Troubles period itself, I don’t think that people had any sense that in the decades after some kind of resolution that people would still be agonising over the past and arguing about it. But they are.

For some, the events of the past are deeply personal. They suffered the loss of someone close to them and they need information about how they died and they need the perpetrators to be convicted.

I know a lot of people like that.

My friend Ann Travers is one. Her sister Mary was shot dead by an IRA team which ambushed the family as they were leaving Mass in south Belfast in 1983 — forty years ago.

Ann’s father, Tom Travers was a Catholic magistrate who had been hearing a case against Gerry Adams. That case itself had been interrupted by a loyalist ambush on Adams and his staff driving away from the courtroom, wounding him and others.

Ann still agitates through social media for justice.

Another friend, George Larmour, owned an ice cream shop on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. While he was on holiday his brother John, who was an RUC man, minded the shop for him. Two IRA men walked into the shop, shot John dead and fired on, and wounded, a young couple sitting by the door.

George continues to plead for greater efforts to prosecute the gunmen.

Yet others — perhaps more in number — want to either forget the past or harbour their grief in private.

My friend Denis had a brother, Terence, who was shot dead by loyalists in 1972. They both worked in a Protestant factory in east Belfast on summer jobs and went out with Protestant girls. On the day of Terence’s funeral, the factory offered the workers time off to attend and they refused to take it.

Denis married his Protestant girlfriend. To the best of my knowledge they never joined any campaign for justice or information.

Another reason for wanting continuing analysis of the past is that it is a way of continuing the old quarrel.

In a divided society like Northern Ireland there can be no agreement on who was to blame yet it seems natural to want to pinpoint villainy and to resect and honour courage since nobody actually won.

Republicans insist on honouring the dead of the IRA ‑ though half of them in the early years died in ‘own goals’, premature explosions or shooting accidents.

These include my old classmate Tony Henderson who was shot by a reckless friend on a training camp. And Leo Hanlon, a Downpatrick school teacher who brought one of his pupils on a bomb attack at Castle Ward and died beside her when the bomb went off.

Unionists want to honour the police and army for holding the line against terrorism, though some very shady stories have emerged about the behaviour of Special Branch and undercover army units.

Consequently we have demands for enquiries into killings like the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, called away from Sunday dinner by a knock on the door and shot dead by loyalists.

The division goes to the heart of the Finucane story.

Two of his brothers have been members of the IRA, one killed in the early days.

There is evidence that someone in Special Branch directed loyalists towards Finucane, pointing him out as an asset to the IRA.

Special Branch members discussing how to avert a previous planned attack on Finucane actually discussed staging a false attack to scare him out of his home for his own safety.

Loyalist paramilitaries memorialise their dead by likening them to the British soldiers who fell at the Somme. The Ulster Volunteer Force formed in the 1960s traced mythic roots back to the organisation of 1912 which merged into the 36th Ulster Division and lost colossal numbers in the Great War.

And another incentive for exploring the past is to embarrass current politicians by exposing the things they did.

Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Féin member of the policing board, took part in bombings in London and later in an armed breakout from the Maze Prison (Long Kesh).

Of late he has been berating the police for human rights abuses and arguing against the use of tasers and some find it galling that he can flaunt his pride in his past while moralising about others.

The scalp many really want is Gerry Adams’s, for they believe he was a senior IRA commander while he has denied this and presented himself as a mediator.

A museum could do something that no single book or film could do. It could combine all these conflicting accounts under one roof. There we might see the plastic bullets and pictures of the children killed by them, the feckless youths of the IRA who blew themselves up, the sentimental warlords comparing themselves to Pearse or squaddies in Flanders, the cold machinations of generals and the politicians who looked the other way. We’d see the cells where the hunger strikers died, the back alleys and country lanes where ‘informers’ were shot, the effects of a kneecapping, the kangaroo courts in which rape victims were interrogated.

All of this and more should be preserved for another generation, simply as information people can use as they please, and without moralising or presenting any political case.