John-Paul McCarthy: Smiling and beautiful countryside of G8 summit hides dreadful record of sin
Fermanagh was the scene of some of the worst sectarian violence in the North.
Published 23/06/2013 | 05:00
Last week's G8 summit at the stunning Lough Erne Golf Resort in Co Fermanagh may have reminded people of an immortal exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
The game is afoot and our heroes are bound for Winchester by train.
Innocent Watson admires the verdant scenery.
Holmes sets about him: "You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there."
Watson asks aghast: "Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?"
Holmes replied: "They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
Something of Holmes' melancholy sensibility runs through Henry Patterson's important recent study of the violence that disfigured G8 country, Ireland's Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations during the Troubles (Palgrave).
Patterson's book helps explain why the British were so keen on having the G8 summit in Fermanagh, a place that could do with some presidential cheer given the scale and ferocity of the sectarian violence in this area since 1970.
Fermanagh is bordered by four counties in the Republic and as such, it was an easy place to escape from for the Provisional IRA.
The IRA's active service units could easily cross the border into Northern Ireland, fulfil their mandate, reverse course and take advantage of the Irish Supreme Court's dysfunctional extradition jurisprudence.
Throughout the Seventies and some of the Eighties, our Supreme Court allowed the IRA access to the safe-harbour provisions of the Extradition Act of 1965, provisions that allowed our courts to refuse extradition requests from Northern Ireland if the paramilitary activity in question could be described as a "political offence".
This stance had the practical effect of turning the border into a sanctuary.
Henry Patterson's book helps a younger audience understand what this meant in practice in places like rural Fermanagh and south Tyrone, that pretty stretch of green that saw 203 murders between 1971 and 1989, 178 of which were carried out by republicans, and that led to barely 14 convictions.
These murders included the IRA's assault on the Graham family in the Eighties.
First, they shot Ronnie Graham in 1981, a UDR part-timer who did deliveries for a grocer in Lisnaskea.
Patterson explains how "an IRA unit took over a house on Graham's delivery list and shot him dead when he arrived at the house".
A few months later, the IRA shot dead his younger brother, Cecil, while he was visiting his wife and baby son in the predominantly Catholic village of Donagh.
Cecil Graham was shot 16 times.
A third Graham brother, Jimmy, was murdered in 1985. A small farmer and a school-bus driver, Jimmy was shot while taking children to the local swimming pool.
"Having disabled him with two shots, his killers got onto the bus and fired 24 more times into his body."
His killers fled across the Monaghan border into oblivion.
Patterson's book reveals a distinct pattern throughout.
For some reason, many of these murders took place in or around Fermanagh's schools and in the presence of the county's smallest children.
In 1973, George Walter Saunderson, a 53-year-old former B-Special and UDR man turned local headmaster, was shot 10 times while drinking a cup of coffee in the school kitchen in Derrylin.
Over in Newtownbutler in 1980, Robert Crilly, a 60-year-old part-time RUC reservist, was shot dead as he worked in his garage. Crilly was murdered in front of a 12-year-old boy.
Former UDR man Victor Morrow's murder shortly afterwards in Lisnaskea provoked the British Observer newspaper to cold fury.
It despatched George Brock to Fermanagh to report on the carnage in this one small area and he began his report with an account of Victor Morrow's murder as he prepared for his night-shift.
Morrow was shot in the darkness, but his killer eventually emerged to stand over his dead body, and to fire five more times at Morrow's head, "a psychopathic gesture calculated to transmit a message of pure terror".
Those tempted to analyse these murders through the Supreme Court's "political" prism had (and have) a major problem – this was not a fair fight by any criteria.
As David McKittrick reported for the Irish Times, the UDR element in Fermanagh "seem to be sitting ducks. They are armed with legally-issued weapons for their personal protection but still the Provisionals can pick them off almost at will".
President Obama came to Fermanagh full of that brash American optimism that was immortalised by the poet Robert Penn Warren, the man who held that the "pain of the past in its pastness/ May be converted into the future tense/ Of joy."
Long may that illusion reign supreme.