On the far side of revenge
I used to sit beside a quiet spoken man from Belfast in the Jock Stein Stand at Celtic Park. At half time or during lulls in games he’d tell tales of his youth growing in that proud old city. I got a sense of the community and pride people there had; they cared about each other and suffered a lot together during the dark days of the conflict which engulfed the six counties from the late 1960s onwards. He told me he worked in a bakery and set of for work at the crack of dawn when the streets were eerily quiet. He’d occasionally see the smouldering cars and debris of the previous night’s violence and try somehow to keep his life as normal as possible. His great release from the tension of living in what was, in those times, a war zone was to cross the Irish sea and watch Jock Stein’s Celtic play. ‘It transported me out of my life for a while,’ he told me, ‘reminded me that there were people not so far away living normal lives.’ Those trips kept him going through some of the darker days of Belfast’s chequered history.
Celtic supporters from the north of Ireland are many and they make regular trips to watch Celtic play. The tales we’d hear in the old Jungle or in the pubs around the stadium were often at odds with the one dimensional version of events we got on the news. The idea that there were two warring tribes at each other’s throats while the British army was an impartial referee trying to keep them apart was difficult to sustain as their actions showed them to be adopting the same counter insurgency tactics they had used in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and a host of other colonial conflicts. Propaganda was a huge part of this strategy and a compliant media generally accepted the army’s version of events and printed it as truth. Thus the great injustices of Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday and scores of other incidents were perpetuated for decades. Innocent people were not only killed but they were smeared as terrorists after their deaths in order to excuse the brutality of the army. Soldiers acted with impunity and the very few who were brought to book for crimes including murder did little jail time and were welcomed back into their regiments when released.
Films such as the Ballymurphy Precedent which told the personal stories of the families and victims of the 1971 massacre are at long last beginning to bring some truth to the historical record of what actually happened back in those dark days. The word ‘Precedent’ was used in the title as it suggests that the incident led to the culture of impunity among soldiers which led to the massacre in Derry a few months later. Callum Macrea’s film demonstrates that the grief of families and burning sense of injustice has never dissipated.
Another aspect of the conflict which is also coming under scrutiny was the collusion of the so called forces of law and order with loyalist paramilitaries. Sean Murray’s powerful and troubling documentary ‘Unquiet Graves’ was given an airing at the Glasgow Film Theatre this week and laid out a damning indictment against elements within the RUC and UDR that some not only colluded with loyalist groups but were active members of them. The so called Glenanne gang were responsible for over 120 murders in the ‘murder triangle’ straddling the counties Armagh and Fermanagh at the height of the conflict. The documentary uses powerful survivor testimony to bring those dreadful events to life and in one section Margaret Campbell, who watched her Trade Unionist husband Pat, killed in front of her spoke movingly of the callous nature of the treatment she received from the Police. This already traumatised woman was taken to a Police station to view a line-up of potential suspects. She told the Policeman who waited by the door that she recognised one of the men but he told her she had to go up the line on her own and place her hand on the man’s shoulder. She fainted and no one was ever convicted of her husband’s killing. Indeed the documentary points out the RUC had a 100% failure rate in tracing who committed these murders,
One chilling point of the documentary was the interview conducted in South Africa with former RUC man John Weir who spoke in a remorseless monotone about why they had killed so many innocents. In the end the IRA’s reaction to the activities of the gang demonstrated how close the north came to open civil war. The Kingsmill atrocity, when they killed 10 Protestant workmen on their way home from work, was meant to warn the loyalist death squads that they’d best end their activities. John Weir spoke chillingly of how in the aftermath of Kingsmill it was suggested they attack a Catholic Primary School and kill the children and teachers. He stated that even the hardened killers of the Glenanne gang thought this was going too far. Weir stated that he joined the group to ‘take the war to the IRA’ but with depressing predictability the group killed mostly innocent people with no connection to any paramilitary group.
Sean Murray’s documentary is not an easy watch but it is necessary that the truth comes out. The people directly affected by the violence of that era on both sides deserve that much. Of course it’s highly embarrassing for the British state to admit even after all these years that some of their employees were acting like banana republic death squad but the truth can be healing as well as painful. That being said, there is unlikely to be a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission of the kind which helped heal South Africa in the post-Apartheid era. Looking honestly into those sad times would no doubt horrify the average UK citizen to learn the truth of Britain’s dirty little war in Ireland.
I write these words not to point score or support one side of that conflict over another but to remember all the innocent victims alive and dead who suffered grievously in those times. Pain knows no boundaries of nationality, faith or political leanings. The families of those killed in Ballymurphy, Derry, Dublin, Monaghan, Kingsmill and a hundred other places in those sad years deserve the truth. Justice remains elusive and far away but it is beholden on all sides to stop hiding behind mealy mouthed words, stop the eternal delays and obfuscation and simply tell the truth.
Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning poet wrote an elegy about his relative Collum McCartney, an innocent victim of the Glenanne gang. Part of it reads….
‘Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud. ‘
(From The Strand at Lough Begg)
Ireland is changing fast and there can be no return to the dark days gone past. The Republic is now a liberal and progressive place and Northern Ireland is awaking to the reality that the Catholic minority will soon be a majority. Old hatreds still fester in some quarters of course, so much blood and pain takes time to heal but few want a return to the chaos of the past. Unity is more than the colour of the flag which flutters on the flag pole; it is the ability of two cultures being able to live together in peace; two traditions recognising the common bonds of humanity which bind them more closely than the divisions caused by ancient quarrels. Bobby Sands once said that, ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’ I hope all the children of Ireland are able live and grow up in a peaceful more tolerant society. Seamus Heaney also wrote…
‘The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.’
On the far side of revenge there can be a better future for everyone. Truth can lead to forgiveness and people can change. Sean Murray’s excellent and beautifully crafted documentary tells the story of a great wrong and the dreadful effects it had on so many innocent people. I hope they find truth and I hope they find peace; these ordinary, decent people are the real victims when folk try to solve their disputes with violence. Let them be the last generation to suffer like this. Perhaps then all that pain and loss will have been worth something.