If we can’t see the past clearly, what is our vision of the future?

Published: 6 Feb 2014 09:300 comments

Here are a couple of lines from a song: “I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.” Which song?

It’s called “I can see clearly now” released by Johnny Nash in 1972; the year that ABBA was formed, Richard Nixon was re-elected United States president (unknown to everyone that during his election campaign officials broke into the Watergate), Apollo 17 landed on the moon and in Britain the whole fashion range was maxi dresses, mini-skirts and knee socks.

The film “The Godfather” was released.

Luca Brasi still sleeps with the fishes, but if Johnny Nash could see clearly then, I’m not sure if the ensuing events over four decades have allowed us in Northern Ireland to have any great clarity of vision.

I remember exactly where I was in 1972. Do you? OK, some of you weren’t even born, or were just toddlers with no recollection of the time. Some of you wouldn’t consider it a particularly notable time; for others it was an indelible bookmark in their life and they remember it vividly.

I’m in that last category. On St. Patrick’s Day 1972 my mum died, taken cruelly from us by cancer at the age of 40. I think of her often and still remember her voice and hearty laugh.

As devastated as I was, I’m not stuck in 1972, because much has happened to me and the rest of the world in the 42 years since.

The same can be said of every one of us; but naturally every person’s journey has been different and very personal.

I was reminded this week of other deaths in 1972. Do these names mean anything to you? Johnny Fletcher, Louis Leonard, Jean McConville and Geraldine O’Reilly.

Johnny Fletcher was a Protestant farmer on the Fermanagh Border near Garrison, and a part-time UDR man who was taken from his home and family by gunman and shot dead by the Provisional IRA. His death was recalled this week by a neighbour, John McClure speaking to journalist Steven McCaffery for the website www.thedetail.tv. In a superb project about legacy, John McClure returns to his former home, a house which he, his wife and five young children abandoned quickly carrying a few bits of furniture and clothing.

I was aware of the story of Johnny Fletcher, but seeing the story of the McClure family displaced from their home of several generations brings home how many people affected by our conflict remained under the radar.

Louis Leonard was killed in 1972. A young butcher from Derrylin, his body was found in the storage fridge of his own shop where it had been dumped by the loyalist gunmen who shot him.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Geraldine O’Reilly, In December 1972, just across the Border in Belturbet; the teenage hairdresser was coming out of a chip shop when a UVF bomb exploded killing her and another youngster.

You will probably have heard of Jean McConville, a widow with 10 children and one of the “disappeared” who was kidnapped by Republicans from her Belfast home, killed and her body buried and hidden for decades.

For all these families, the “past” has never gone away. And that is why dealing with our history is so crucial to us moving forward as a society.

These are just a few “stories”, if it isn’t insensitive to call them that. But even in this snapshot, we get some idea of the range and depth of violent brutality visited upon many sections. The IRA killed Border Protestants and Belfast Nationalists. Loyalists, often aided by security force elements, bombed children across the Border (even more grievously two years later with multiple deaths in Dublin and Monaghan.) Loyalists also took it upon themselves to come down to Fermanagh at dead of night to be judge, jury and executioner of someone who it later emerged was in the IRA.

And so it went on for years. Death and destruction which saw more almost 4,000 lives taken, thousands more maimed, people driven out of their homes from Catholics fleeing in Belfast to the fearful abandoning of Protestant farms along the Border.

Are any of these lives any less value in the eyes of God than another? And do we look at these lives differently, and focus only on the wrongdoing of others?

That is what is making dealing with the past such a complicated issue. Even the two Governments are involved. The British Government’s role in the dirty war means, for example, that they won’t open the can of worms of the level of state involvement in the death of solicitor Pat Finucane. And will they ever admit to shoot-to-kill? Well, no.

The Irish Government is still in denial about the role they played in giving early succour to the Provisional IRA, which is examined by Steven McCaffery in his legacy report on the Arms Trial of 1970, or indeed there seems little chance of the Dublin administration examining allegations of the Republic’s policy on extradition making it a safe haven.

Will loyalists ever come clean about the involvement of security force personnel and collusion in their violence?

Will Republicans admit, or even address, claims of “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” or the sectarian nature of their campaign?

Be honest. Read the last four paragraphs and ask yourself which one vexes you most? Or do you treat them all equally?

Everyone has questions to answer, surely. Yet when we approach the past, it would seem various groups want to either re-write versions of the above, deny them, or simply ask questions of someone else. Storytelling by a project such as the detail is very important.

In an interview with Steven McCaffery, First Minister Peter Robinson said if you are going to deal with the past, you’re going to have to deal with the whole of the past. I hope he really means that, because he’s right.

Painful as it is for everyone.

This week, Robin Eames and Denis Bradley were interviewed on UTV by Sharon O’Neill about the process they had engaged in a few years ago. Denis Bradley made a chilling point; his call for politicians to move on with these matters came with a health warning that if we don’t, a return to the violence of the past was a real possibility.

And remember, apart from the awful deaths I listed in this article earlier, 1972 was the year of Bloody Sunday in Derry when paratroopers killed 14 civilians and Bloody Friday in Belfast when more than 20 IRA bombs across Belfast killed nine people and injured more than 130. And I recall the funeral of Raymond Carroll, an RUC man shot dead in Belfast. He was from Enniskillen, and I remember him from school.

According to the book “Lost Lives” 1972 was the year when the Troubles claimed 497 lives, more than any other year: 280 as a result of Republican activity, loyalists were behind 121 while the army was responsible for 79 deaths and the RUC for six.

You may well think we can never sink to those depths again.

Are you sure?

In Ecclesiastes “A time for everything” it says there is “a time to tear, a time to mend. A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time for war and a time for peace.”

What times are we in, and have we got the community will and political leadership to take us to a better future? That really would be a legacy.

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