Thursday 23 May 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The ordinariness of the scene makes the deaths so disquieting... it's almost as if nowhere is safe'

When tragic accidents occur, grief finds no closure - and sometimes there are no answers, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

PSNI forensic officers at The Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown last week. Photo: PA
PSNI forensic officers at The Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown last week. Photo: PA

Eilis O'Hanlon

Thousands of young people went out to celebrate St Patrick's Day. Some of them didn't come home. It's the ordinariness of the scene which makes the deaths of three teenagers at the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown last weekend so disquieting.

It's as if nowhere is safe. The everyday world becomes suffused with threat. The horror can't be rationalised.

With terrorism, there are perpetrators to blame, or political circumstances to be identified which may have provoked the situation. With natural disasters, the laggardly response of authorities might be a factor. Each explanation offers an outlet for sorrow and anger. When young people die just because there's a crush at the door as they try to get into a disco, there's nothing left to say. It's just a horrible accident, so people feel restive. Their grief finds no closure. They need someone, something to blame.

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Sometimes they get their wish. The Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during the FA Cup semi-final, was ultimately judged to be the result of gross negligence by police and ambulance services on the day, and a number of charges, including manslaughter, were laid against those on duty. But even when the facts are known, it can be impossible to finally draw a line under the past.

As the defence barrister told a court in England last week as he summed up in the latest case, there is "an enormous temptation for you as jurors to think 'I must do something to put things right, I must find someone responsible'". He urged them: "Please cast that temptation aside."

The impulse to make things right again is a temptation which follows every needless death. The St Patrick's Day tragedy was no different.

In Cookstown, two men were quickly arrested by the PSNI on suspicion of manslaughter following the three teenagers' deaths, including the owner of the hotel, Michael McElhatton. McElhatton was later additionally charged with possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply - only to be hastily "de-arrested" when the white substance which was found at his home turned out to be either washing powder or bicarbonate of soda instead.

McElhatton has since accused the PSNI of blackening his name, though the force refuses to apologise, saying that any actions taken "were in good faith and in line with procedure". This led to plenty of scathing comments on social media about the professionalism of the PSNI, with questions also being asked by local politicians about why the police couldn't have waited to identify the substance before announcing this man's arrest.

In a way, though, turning on the police is just another way to find someone with whom to get angry, in order to lift the wretched feeling of powerlessness. To see it, as some tried to do, as a case of the police thinking any "prosperous taig" must be up to no good, was going too far to find fault. Ultimately it was a minor matter when set alongside the deaths of Lauren Bullock (17), Morgan Barnard (17), and Connor Currie (16) as they queued along with around 400 others to get inside the venue. Their funerals were held last Friday.

What's striking is this deep need to create a narrative in which some can be assigned the roles of heartless villains, and obviously nobody wants to blame the teenagers on the edge of the crowd who were "pushing and shoving" that night, because, despite the "hysterical screaming", they could have had no idea of the consequences.

Once they did realise what was happening, it was the young people who saved one another, long before emergency services arrived, and plenty more may have died if they hadn't.

It could be that the young witnesses who have still not come forward are scared that they may end up being blamed too. That would be equally fruitless. Sometimes there are no answers. Death strikes randomly, meaninglessly, and the cruel world keeps turning.

Sunday Independent

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