Only reconciliation and the truth can give peace a chance
Stories of loved ones lost to bullets and bombs brought tears and yet brought hope too for a 'healing Ireland', writes Alan O'Keeffe
Heart-breaking descriptions of violent murders held more than 100 people in almost complete silence.
Stephen Travers, Alan McBride, Eugene Reavey and Joe Campbell told their stories standing on a stage in a hotel in Co Monaghan.
The lives of their loved ones and friends were stolen by bullets and bombs amid the darkness of political violence.
Before a gripped audience, they evoked blood-soaked images of pain and loss, but also of hope.
The Truth and Reconciliation Platform was founded by its chairman Stephen Travers and Eugene Reavey to help reconciliation after The Troubles and to seek to uncover the truth behind the murders.
No side has a monopoly on suffering and loss, they said.
Giving victims a chance to tell their own stories is intended to help prevent the return of political violence.
This 'Healing Ireland' initiative has the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Former Dail Ceann Comhairle and Government minister Rory O'Hanlon (84) was chairperson of the event at the Shirley Court Hotel in Carrickmacross last Wednesday night.
Stephen Travers (67), a gifted musician from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, was 24 when the Miami Showband massacre made world headlines in 1975.
The immensely popular band had musicians who were Catholic and Protestant from both sides of the Border. The band was returning to Dublin after a gig in Co Down when their minibus was stopped at a checkpoint on a dark road near the border by uniformed soldiers of the Ulster Defence Regiment.
It was a bogus checkpoint and the soldiers were clandestine members of the loyalist terrorist group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). They ordered the five musicians out of the minibus and told them to face the ditch.
Two of the terrorists then sought to conceal a time-bomb underneath the driver's seat. Their plan was to allow the band to drive away so that the bomb would explode later and kill all those on the bus.
Stephen Travers believed it was an attempt to frame the musicians as bomb and weapons smugglers. The plot would have portrayed them as being killed by their own bomb. The intended result was to bring about a complete clampdown on most cross border traffic to thwart the IRA, he claimed.
Mr Travers said a British officer with an upper-class English accent arrived and he asked the band for their names and dates of birth.
But then the bomb exploded and killed the two soldiers planting the bomb.
"The bomb blew us into the air and into a field," he said.
"I was shot in the right hip with a dum-dum bullet that exploded inside me," he said.
Trumpet player Brian McCoy tried to lift Stephen but he was shot dead.
"They caught our guitar player Tony Geraghty and shot him in the back of the head. I had heard him crying...
"Fran O'Toole, our good-looking singer, was crying and begging them not to kill him. But they shot him 22 times and 17 of those bullets were in his head and face.
"They walked around the field and fired into the lads, even though they were dead. I pretended to be dead. I kept my face in the ground and then a soldier shouted from the road: 'I got those bastards with dum-dums, they're dead.' My angel guardian must have been on overtime because they just walked away," he said.
The fifth member of the band, Des Lee, injured by shrapnel, was blown into a ditch where he remained hidden. He raised the alarm.
"The reason I tell you this story is because it is one of thousands of stories. I've never seen a green tear or an orange tear. Every tear is the same… We will continue to push for justice," said Travers.
Two serving UDR soldiers and one former soldier were found guilty of the murders.
The audience heard a different story of loss from Alan McBride (53) who was brought up in a loyalist household in Belfast and whose father joined the UDA terror group to protect their housing estate, he said.
He said he was brought up being told Catholics looked different from Protestants but both communities really looked the same as "they all had the same pasty white complexions".
Alan's wife Sharon (29) was working with her father Desmond in a fish shop on the Shankill Road one sunny afternoon in 1993 when both of them were killed along with eight other people by an IRA bomb.
One of the dead was IRA bomber Thomas Begley (19). The IRA was targeting a meeting of high-ranking UDA members upstairs but the meeting had been rescheduled. The bomb had a short fuse and exploded prematurely.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams carried Begley's coffin and McBride decided to target him relentlessly to confront him about the atrocity.
"I remember confronting him with placards at airports. I remember when he went to Boston, I was there with my placards on behalf of my wife and screaming at Gerry Adams that he was a murderer.
"He carried the coffin… so I blamed him and held him responsible. I wrote to him on nine occasions and sent him photographs of Sharon on her birthday and at Christmas time and on the anniversary of her death and tell him stories of her as a wife and as a mother.
"I didn't want him to think of her as a statistic, one of the 3,700 victims of the Troubles," he said.
Adams wrote back stating he understood his pain and said Sinn Fein was working hard for peace and reconciliation. Those words, though, came shortly after the IRA had put a bomb under the car of a man called Fred Anthony who worked as a cleaner in a police station. Anthony was killed and his three-year-old daughter, Emma, was permanently brain damaged, he said.
He spoke of meeting a former IRA member after the Good Friday Agreement who introduced himself at an airport as they travelled to a symposium about post-traumatic stress.
"That night, we had a few drinks and I told him my story and the IRA man touched me on the hand and looked into my face and said to me: 'What happened that day on the Shankill Road was wrong and I, as an Irish Republican, am sorry'."
The IRA man told him his own story about the reasons he got involved in violence at 15. "It was a story that I could understand," he said.
Mr McBride went on to say: "As we search desperately in Northern Ireland for truth and reconciliation, we need to get to the place where we can acknowledge the hurts that were caused to each other and we need to stop 'the what-aboutery' and 'you did this and we did that'."
It was reported that he met with Gerry Adams years later who apologised to him and they shook hands.
Eugene Reavey (70) told the meeting of a loyalist attack in 1976 on his home in Whitecross, Co Armagh, that claimed the lives of his three brothers, John Martin (24), Brian (22) and Anthony (17), who were keen GAA players and not involved in politics or paramilitary activities.
The brothers were watching television when loyalist gunmen entered their home and opened fire.
John Martin was hit three times in the chest. As he lay on the ground, he was shot 40 more times which turned him into "a rag doll".
Mr Reavey said his mother was goaded regularly by soldiers at checkpoints about the murder of her three sons. He said: "My mother was a kind lady and in all those years she prayed for her boys and she also prayed for the men that shot them."
She told her family: "I don't blame them but I blame the people who sent them."
On the same night, three members of another Catholic family, the O'Dowds, were also murdered by the UVF in their home.
"Daddy appealed on TV for no retaliation for the death of his sons," said Eugene Reavey.
But the next night, 10 Protestant workers travelling by minibus were shot dead in Kingsmills. Eugene Reavey said the massacre happened one minute away by car from his family home. He and others were on their way to the hospital "to pick up our corpses when we ran into the massacre". They were flagged down in the dark by a man at Kingsmills who said there had been "another shooting".
"It was raining… there were 10 men dead on the road," he said.
He said he felt unable to remain at the scene because he felt sick and because of the murder of his brothers the night before. He and his family then drove to the hospital by a different route.
While they were still at the morgue, some of the relatives of the Kingsmills massacre began to arrive and he introduced himself to them and offered his family's sympathy. Two of the Protestant victims were friends of the Reavey family.
The event also heard from Joe Campbell whose father, Joseph, a Catholic RUC sergeant, was shot dead outside Cushendall RUC station in 1977.
Mr Campbell said his father was murdered because he refused to ignore criminal activity by loyalists.
An RUC Special Branch detective was charged with his murder but he was later acquitted.
Stephen Travers said they believed there was collusion between secret British military figures, rogue police, and loyalists gangs in many of the murders.
His group will continue to seek to "build bridges".