Sunday 19 November 2017

Thirty years on, sorry is no longer the hardest word

The IRA's public apology this week to its 'non-combatant' victims brought back terrible memories for thousands of relatives here, in the North and in Britain. How do they feel about the 'condolences' for their 'grief and pain'? KIM BIELENBERG reports

It took a long time coming. But almost a quarter of a century after Eamon Ryan, a civil servant, was gunned down by the IRA in a bank raid in Tramore, his family like hundreds of others across these islands finally received an apology this week.

There was no personal message of remorse, no letter or visit from a shadowy provisional godfather.

But the tone of the public statement from the republican leadership was seen as unprecedented: the families were offered "sincere apologies and condolences"; the "grief and pain" of relatives were finally acknowledged.

Like many relatives, Eamon Ryan's sister Mairead Bolger questioned the motives of the IRA, but she gave the statement a positive response.

"It is a short enough statement and I am not sure what it means," said Mairead, an administrator in University College Dublin. "But if it was made with sincerity, I see no reason why I should not accept it. I just have to take it at face value, because I don't know anything else."

Murdered just days before Lord Louis Mountbatten met his end in an IRA bomb in Mullaghmore, Eamon is one of the lesser-known civilian casualties of the troubles. In most of the published histories and chronologies, he is hardly mentioned. In Malcolm Sutton's book An Index of deaths from the conflict in Ireland, he is simply recorded as "civilian, killed by Irish Republican Army. Shot during bank robbery, Strand Street, Tramore."

Like so many other civilian casualties of the troubles, Eamon just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On a summer's day in 1979, at the height of the holiday season, the civil servant, who worked in the Department of Finance in Dublin, walked into the AIB branch in Tramore with his four-year-old son.

His wife was shopping in the town at the time. Eamon spotted the IRA raiders and reached out to protect his son. But as he did so, one of the raiders shot him dead.

The gunman was later imprisoned for the crime, but until this week there have been no words of regret or remorse for the incident from the IRA.

"The personal loss remains and nothing can be done to change that," says Mairead. "It will always be with us and I don't think it will bring the victims' families much comfort.

"But if this statement helps in the peace process, if it offers a tiny glimmer of hope, I would be happy to accept it."

Since her brother's murder, Mairead has been in touch with the families of other victims through the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation near Dublin. She has met families from the North and from England.

She believes that the Irish state has done little to remember the victims of the troubles South of the border.

"There was very little help given to victims and their families here. There is a real need for some kind of proper memorial."

Since the outbreak of the troubles, few have worked harder than the Englishman Colin Parry for reconciliation. Colin, who lost his 12-year-old son Tim in the IRA's Warrington bomb nine years ago, became one of the most prominent peace crusaders of the troubles. He now helps to run a peace centre in the town.

Tim Parry, an Everton fan, had been shopping for football shorts in Warrington when he caught the full force of the blast. He died five days later in hospital. Three-year-old Jonathan Ball, who was in town with his babysitter to fetch a Mother's Day card, also died and 56 people were injured.

Colin Parry says the public apology will not mean anything to him on a personal level, but hopes the gesture will help the peace process.

"My hurt is absolute and my loss is absolute. My son has gone and no word from the IRA can help that. I do not like the distinction that the IRA draws between combatants and non-combatants, but the apology is still welcome.

"All of these deaths were unnecessary, but I hope it will have a positive effect on the stalled peace process."

Colin Parry says he bears no resentment towards the leaders of Sinn Fein and the IRA. Over the years, he has noticed a shift in their attitude to the civilians, who lost their lives, and to their families.

A few years ago, in the aftermath of the Warrington bomb, Colin wrote to Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders, asking if he could interview them for his local TV station. "I never even received the courtesy of a reply to my invitation, or an acknowledgement."

Last December, Martin McGuinness showed how times had changed. He visited the peace centre in Warrington and met Colin Parry in his capacity as the North's Minister for Education. He acknowledged the bombing was wrong.

"I spent two hours in his company and I must say that I found him most friendly. He was there as the minister, but obviously I was interested in seeing him as a Sinn Fein leader.

"Many people might see me as naive or outlandish in my approach, but I think you do little harm in sitting down with people with whom you disagree.

"After the bomb, I could not have foreseen what has happened. We are out of a period that was black and hopeless. The apology gives me more grounds for optimism."

In the wake of this week's apology, Colin Parry says he now appreciates the fact that the IRA is behaving in a way everyone else would regard as normal.

Not surprisingly, the IRA statement was greeted with more scepticism by Protestants in the North.

Alan McBride, who lost his wife Sharon and his father-in law in the Shankill fish shop bomb, gave the IRA apology a guarded welcome.

Alan recalls how on a sunny morning in October 1993, he heard an explosion while he was giving his two-year-old daughter Zoe a bicycle ride.

He ran to Frizzell's fish shop, where 29-year-old Sharon worked. But all he found was rubble. IRA men had placed a package containing a bomb in Frizzell's. Sharon had no chance of escape.

"The IRA said the killing of Sharon and the others was an accident, but as far as the IRA were concerned, they were expendable."

Alan has mixed feelings about the apology issued by the IRA this week.

"In many ways it is hypocritical. The IRA says there should not be a hierarchy of victims in which some are deemed more or less worthy than others. But in apologising only to the families of non-combatants, it is creating a hierarchy itself. It may be choreographed and it may be hypocritical, but it is still an important step, because it is the first time that they have apologised. At least they are accepting that what they did was wrong."

Since his wife's death, Alan has been involved in cross-community initiatives. Although he is sceptical about the IRA's motives, he is an enthusiastic supporter of the Good Friday Agreement.

"There is no doubt the atmosphere in the North is better by far. Fewer people are being killed, and the centre of Belfast is buzzing with life. We have to move forward and remain upbeat."

Alan is a board member of Healing through Remembering, a group that aims to heal some of the wounds of the troubles by remembering the events and the victims in an appropriate fashion.

The group recommends that there should be a memorial museum and day of remembrance for all those affected, and takes as its motto the fitting words of poet Maya Angelou: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

Warrington Peace Centre:

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