Friday 24 October 2014

Healing is happening in North but this parade will only feed distrust

Published 10/08/2013 | 05:00

The scene of devastation after the Omagh bombing in August 1998. Twenty-nine men, women and children died, along with two unborn babies.

There is no such thing as a good time to commemorate the act of planting a bomb – nothing associated with bombing deserves to be celebrated.

But tomorrow's Tyrone Volunteers Day parade to honour IRA members is a particularly repellent choice of date. It coincides with a service to mark the Omagh bomb's 15th anniversary, when 29 men, women and children, along with two unborn babies, were sacrificed to further a perverted interpretation of nationalism.

Bombs do not distinguish between 'legitimate' targets and civilians. Bombs kill and maim indiscriminately – sometimes, they even wipe out those who construct and transport them.

The mercy is that the bomb that two Tyrone men tried to plant 40 years ago did not reach its target. The riddle is why republicans would seek to mark the failed attempt – tomorrow, or on any other day.

The dilemma is how to make the organisers appreciate that such a move causes unacceptable levels of offence – not just within the unionist community, but among nationalists on both sides of the Border.

Sinn Fein, normally so sure-footed, has stumbled here. Stormont MLA Gerry Kelly is expected to speak at the Castlederg event; unless he reconsiders, the presence of an elected representative to a shared parliament will add insult to injury.

Wounds in the North are not yet healed. Cracks have been papered over, and amnesia has been adopted for the purposes of social cohesion.

But the Castlederg parade, happening on the same day and a handful of miles from a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Real IRA's bombing of Omagh, contravenes everything for which the peace process stands.

Let's turn back the clock to August 1973. Let's assume that, rather than detonating early, the bomb carried by Seamus Harvey (23) and Gerard McGlynn (20) reached its destination. Members of the security services would have been killed or injured, women widowed and children orphaned. In all likelihood, civilians would have numbered among the casualties – bombs don't check a victim's credentials, after all.

I don't seek to recast the past. I accept that some regard those decades of conflict as a civil war. What I do seek, however, is an end to glorifying the past.

War is brutal, whether conducted today with drones or in the early years of the Troubles with home-made, unpredictable explosives. Those two young volunteers paid a high price for their actions. But let's not have speeches and parades idealising what they did. Let's move forward, away from the lost years of violence.

The North is composed of a mish-mash of broken pieces which have scarcely had a chance to knit back together. Healing is happening. But this gesture in Castlederg will not help to mend any damaged parts.

The Parades Commission cannot ban the parade, although it can restrict its route and prohibit paramilitary symbols. Anyhow, I'm not convinced suppressing parades is productive – it fosters resentment.

If Sinn Fein chose, however, it could act with maturity and compassion by voluntarily calling it off. Apart from being the right thing to do, it would act as a public relations victory.

Meanwhile, international human rights group Amnesty International is joining with families of Omagh victims in pressing for an independent public inquiry. Despite various investigations, Amnesty believes unanswered questions remain about the gathering and sharing of intelligence material relating to the explosion.

In general, people simply want to know the truth, although there are those for whom the truth is difficult terrain – both individuals and governments.

And that applies to more than just the Omagh bomb. I believe a truth commission in the North, similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is long overdue.

The political will to set up such a body is not evident, but this squeamishness is short-sighted. After more than 3,000 deaths in the Troubles, people still have painful memories and unresolved issues to deal with.

An effective truth body must be independent, and have reconciliation as its aim rather than legal redress or revenge. Honest accounts of violent events through the decades of conflict need to go on the record, and to achieve that, immunity must be offered to those who might testify.

In Ireland – north and south – we feel threatened by what is different and resort to stereotypes, demonising those perceived as 'other'. A truth commission might be a useful step towards nurturing something approaching mutual understanding.

A parade in Castlederg, however, can only cultivate reproach, hurt and distrust.

Irish Independent

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