These two events were celebrated on the same day, for ease of memory; they were my birthday and my wedding anniversary. Knowing that I was useless at remembering anniversaries when I decided to get married for the second time I determined to pick a day and date which would make this remembrance easy, so on September 11th yours truly celebrated 59 years on this earth and three years of married bliss.
Why do I mention these things?
For various reasons and I will reveal a couple of them. Knowing that I am 59 tells you a lot about me; you know that I have lived all through the Troubles, I remember the days when Northern Ireland was a horrible place for a Catholic to live, my images of government authority are founded on being humiliated at the side of the road by RUC, UDR and foreigners with strange cockney accents speaking some language that I vaguely understood.
I am also from that generation where people were part of the family of ‘man’ and a manhole did not have to be called a ‘personhole’ in case you offended your female friend. I am also of that generation when a girlfriend was a prelude to a wife and a partner was a business associate.
But most of all, at 59, I am the last of the generations who were brought up in a society where people in authority were, assumed and generally did, what was right and worked in the service of the public good.
The fact that I am 59 and just three years married tells you that even at 56 I could still find someone to love me, so I can’t be all bad.
Why do I mention these things?
I bring these snippets of auto-biographical history to the fore because this week there is something about to begin in Northern Ireland that could very seriously affect all our futures.
However, for me there is one issue that I cannot seem to get my head around and it is the main reason that I mention my age; the central issue at stake for me here is the definition of ‘victim,’ and the unionist insistence that there shall be a hierarchy of victims in peacetime as there was a hierarchy of victims during our civil war. (For that is what it was)
I remember one incident in my life that has shaped my thinking so much over the years and it happened long before the Troubles began.
I was about 7 or 8 and the “Twelfth” parades were to be held in Coalisland, which even at that time was a 99% nationalist town. I had no idea what parades were about but I remember that we, as a family, had to leave our home in the Main Street for the day because my mother was afraid of trouble.
You see, my problem is that in the unionist mindset there appears to be no possibility of admitting that there was ever anything wrong with Northern Ireland, that the Troubles were purely a republican uprising that was unjust and was proof of the fact that a Fenian could never be trusted.
From this mindset a hierarchy of victims is the only logical conclusion; there were good victims, (the police, UDR etc) and there were bad victims (The IRA etc).
The unionist politicians have never addressed the issue of why the Catholic people effectively rose up against overwhelming odds in 1969. The response of the RUC was swift and brutal.
“In response to the RUC coming under fire at Divis Street, three Shorland armoured cars were called to the scene. The Shorlands were immediately attacked with gunfire, an explosive device and petrol bombs. The RUC believed that the shots had come from nearby Divis Tower. Gunners inside the Shorlands returned fire with their heavy machine-guns. At least thirteen Divis Tower flats were hit by high-velocity gunfire. A nine-year-old boy, Patrick Rooney, was killed by machine-gun fire as he lay in bed in one of the flats. He was the first child to be killed in the violence.”
I grew into adulthood with a hatred of the RUC and all things British. But I am getting older and I want all these things to be laid to rest in me as my mind naturally turns and looks more towards the future than the past.
When we reach our mid fifties we begin to reflect more on what lies ahead than what lies behind. Having spent a lifetime reflecting on the Troubles and remembering good friends and neighbours who died at the hands of loyalists and the security forces, I am willing to let go of these hurts and let the past be the past.
We need to have some sort of forgiveness in Northern Ireland but the unionist insistence that they were never at fault, that somehow the Catholic dead are not worthy of the name of victim, prevents me from being able to enter fully into the spirit of reconciliation necessary to bring about a real New North.
I am still offended when someone tells me, either directly or indirectly, that John Paddy Mullan was a terrorist, or that Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes or Raymond McCreesh, were not honourable men and that they deserved to die.
For many Catholics of my generation these were honourable men fighting a just war against unionist oppression.
You may or may not agree with their methods but no Catholic born in the 1950s or before is under any illusion as to what Northern Ireland was.
Very early on in the Troubles it became apparent to many people that violence was not the way forward. From as early as 1972 I was of the opinion that community politics, building from the grassroots up was the way forward.
However, even this did not stop me having a grudging respect for those lads who kept on fighting against the British.
This seemingly split thinking was the attitude of most Catholics, even those who belonged to parties that were apparently implacably opposed to violence. The IRA could not have survived and operated without the tacit support of the majority of people.
To the Catholic people, the IRA were not criminals. There was a tradition of fighting the English that stretched back many generations and when we saw English soldiers in the streets treating our people as dirt we were not going to condemn anyone who fought against them.
So I find myself 59 and wanting to forgive and take part in some sort of communal reconciliation. The forgiveness I can do on my own; I can make a decision to forgive and hold on to that come what may.
Reconciliation is a different matter. Reconciliation entails both sides sitting down and honestly facing the wrongs that each party has committed.
When you have one party of the conflict totally unwilling to even countenance the fact that they might have anything to ask forgiveness for then we cannot even reach a starting point for reconciliation.
Richard Haas is coming here to discuss victims, parades and flags.
I have lived 59 years in a land where I have been hated by a substantial portion of the population for no other reason than my religion. Many of my friends and compatriots were killed as a result of where they went to pray and in many cases the killers were aided and abetted by people receiving good wages to uphold the law.
I have lived 59 years in a land where foreign soldiers have killed with impunity and been backed up by their government which now appears to be trying to wash their hands of the whole dirty war as if it never happened.
For reconciliation, I need that to be addressed.
For two hundred years Orange Order marches have caused trouble and strife and still we have never had a government willing or able to stand up to these people who feel it their right to trample over Catholics. A society which is organized along sectarian lines and a secret society which met behind closed doors to decide job prospects and the like is not a healthy society.
For reconciliation, I need that to be addressed.
My dead are worthy of respect. Good, decent Catholic lads fought for what they believed, and many died, truly and genuinely believing in their hearts that they were fighting for justice. A grieving Catholic mother has as much right to be heard as anyone else.
We cannot grade victims. Everyone’s list would be different, even in the same community. When we reflect on the murders of these past forty years we all have those which come to the fore in most of our heads.
The flags.......I couldn’t care less. They degrade a community and imprison the inhabitants. A flag should bring freedom, not isolate a community.
The insistence on flying Union flags only reflects unionist insecurity and fear. I would sacrifice the issue of flags for a genuine peace.
That’s my side. Is there another side to this story?
Yes, there most certainly is, but I need to hear it. I need to be told it articulately without hearing first that ‘this is my right.’
“This is my right” comes after a coherent, reasoned argument which begins with a question and ends with a conclusion.
Question: “Why should Stormont be bedecked with symbols of Unionism in a land that is now almost 50% nationalist?”
Question: “How can a person born on the island of Ireland not understand themselves to be Irish?”
For the person coming from the Unionist tradition these are almost silly questions. However, that mindset comes from years of never being challenged in their thinking.
In the same way the Unionist might ask me, “How can a person born in a British jurisdiction and who accepts the benefits of being a British subject, not see themselves as British.”
I cannot answer, “It is my right,” and leave it at that. I have to give a logical coherent reason for my response.
What do we in the nationalist tradition need to bring to these talks?
I want representatives who shall put forward the nationalist viewpoint in a mannerly, reasoned and respectful way.
But there is something else that has to be heard—the hurt and pain of the Unionist people who have felt and still feel that their British identity is relentlessly being taken from them.
I want to hear why the people I know who died fighting over these past forty odd years should be treated as any less worthy of respect than an RUC officer who were killed.
There is at the heart of the Troubles a terrible dichotomy that has to be faced: both ordinary decent Catholic and Protestant people gave at least tacit support to men of violence.
And there has to be real recognition that the RUC, UDR and British army were really part of the problem and not all knowing, all good, people of community service.
We do not want another generation growing up with lies; we require leaders who can face and live in the truth and bring closure to this troubled period of our history.
What is uncomfortable for us in the nationalist community is that we were also guilty of vicious atrocities and crimes. The unionist people have a right to have these addressed.
So, in this past week I also celebrated my third wedding anniversary. Why did I mention that? Has it anything to do with the Troubles?
I mention it because I have learnt that it is never too late to start anew, to begin a new relationship of commitment and trust, and to change life so as to enjoy it.
Let’s be honest; Northern Ireland is still not a nice place. It is not a ‘great wee country.’
Luxemburg beat our national team and most nationalists laughed.
What does it say about a country when almost 50% of the population supports their country’s opponents?
“Dear Mr Haas,
Please do not paper over the cracks. Ask the hard questions and when people, Nationalist or Unionist, cannot answer your questions, refuse to move on til you get an answer. If need be, take all the plaster off and force us to re-plaster the wall.”
As to the leaders of nationalism, I say do not rub the unionist noses in it just because we on the nationalist side appear to be getting the upper hand.
A country based of one-upmanship is going nowhere; the current status quo of a yearly cycle of hatred only exasperates the situation and the changing relationships within the UK shall leave us far behind; the rest won’t wait on us.
“There is a time to be born, a time to die,....a time for killing, a time for healing,... a time for keeping silent, a time for speaking.”
The time for being silent is over.
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