Sunday 16 June 2019

The past is still raw to those in pain

Imagine the reaction if a bishop, confronted by victims of child abuse, had said, 'It's in the past', writes Eilis O'Hanlon

In any normal election, Michael D would be the divisive left-wing joker in the pack. This is a man who once called an American contributor that he didn't agree with on Newstalk a "w*nker" for not going along with his views on Israel. Very presidential.

Instead, Twee is looking like the consensus candidate -- a scenario which would have been as unlikely a few months ago as, well, the idea that the son of a murdered young Irish soldier could get the brush-off from the representative of the illegal organisation which ended his life, and that afterwards many voters would feel more annoyance at the bereaved son than with the man whose comrades pulled the trigger.

Of course, to express any quibbles about Martin the Peacemaker's candidacy in this election is to invite accusations of ranting, or being obsessed by the past, or wanting to deny McGuinness the democratic right to stand, even of wishing for the resumption of the Troubles, because, hey, that was such fun, wasn't it?

I'm certainly not fooling myself that anyone's opinion is being changed here. The electorate seems to have made up its mind.

It could even be that pointing out Martin McGuinness's poisoned pedigree only bolsters his support amongst people who seem to believe that facts are like first husbands, to be discarded when inconvenient. So be it. You can't stop telling the truth just because it might be counterproductive.

Whichever way you look at it, McGuinness's response to the son of murdered Private Patrick Kelly was pathetic and inadequate. Listen to the Derry man on the Prime Time Presidential Debate and the narrative is simple.

"People rose up against the powers of the state and rebelled," he declared of the IRA campaign. "When being occupied by a foreign army, people do have the right to resist." That's the easy part.

Where the murder of Private Kelly, together with 23-year-old garda recruit Gary Sheehan on the same day, is supposed to fit into that one-dimensional bedtime story is anyone's guess. They weren't killed fighting for an occupying British army, but in a search-and-rescue operation in their own country to free a supermarket boss, Don Tidey, who'd been kidnapped at gunpoint whilst dropping his 13-year-old daughter off to school and then held in chains for 23 days in a wood in Co Leitrim in the hope of securing a IR£5m ransom.

Which bit of that does not reek of common criminality?

Yet all Martin McGuinness has to offer when confronted with the son of a victim of violence is some waffle about the peace process and more claims about knowing nothing of IRA operations, before delivering the killer blow: "This is in the past."

No doubt he'd give the same breathtakingly glib answer to Austin Stack, who last week described how his own father Brian became the only prison officer in the Irish Republic to be murdered by the IRA. "My father was walking down a street opposite the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin when a gunman approached him from behind and shot him in the back of the head." Yes, the definition of resisting a "foreign army" grows broader all the while.

These issues may be in the past for Martin McGuinness, but that doesn't stop Sinn Fein demanding public inquiries into the loyalist murder of solicitor Pat Finucane and becoming indignant when, last week, the family's demands for an independent inquiry to find the truth was rejected by the British Prime Minister.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, a former bomber who now acts as the party's spokesman on policing, even issued a statement insisting that republicans regarded getting the truth for the Finucanes "and many other families" as an "entitlement" not a "concession".

Do the Kellys and Stacks and McCabes not have entitlements too?

McGuinness's failure to address the plight of IRA victims exposes once again the self-serving dishonesty of the claim to voters in the South that these unpleasant reminders of past atrocities have been swept under the carpet in the North and everyone is all the better for it. Only last week the cross-community Alliance Party put down a motion in the Stormont Assembly to "comprehensively address the civil rights of victims and survivors".

"If we are to deal with the past," it said, "we must recognise and acknowledge victims and survivors, but to stop there is to fail to examine the full legacy and consequence of our past." The DUP backed the motion, with one member saying: "If we can find out how much Martin McGuinness spent in Asda last week but we can't establish whether he was a member of the IRA or when he left the IRA, then how can we have truth?"

Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott was less hopeful of a positive outcome, believing those involved would only tell a "bundle of lies".

Whoever could he mean?

This stuff still matters in the North because 10 per cent of the population were directly bereaved by the Troubles, and the vast majority of those murders remain unsolved; the Historical Inquiries Team chronological analysis of past cases has only reached 1977. Perhaps the only reason McGuinness gets away with saying "this is in the past" in the Republic is because the population south of the Border suffered so much less from the conflict as a whole. Most people here were just spectators to murder. When they were affected directly, as in the Dublin bombings, the grief and pain remain acute.

What the South does have a profound and anguished memory of is clerical abuse, and the collusion of the Catholic Church in the sexual exploitation of children. That offence remains raw and unhealed. Imagine then what the reaction would be if a bishop, confronted on a public walkabout by a victim of child abuse, had uttered those same five words: "This is in the past." It's unthinkable. Wouldn't happen.

More to the point, anyone crass and callous enough to try it wouldn't get away with it if he did. Why is it different if you're carrying a crozier in one hand rather than an Armalite in the other?

It's up to the victims of history, not the victors, to decide when and if events should be filed away and forgotten. That's the least they deserve.

Sunday Independent

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