By Jack Holland
Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries are not known for their sensitivity. But the Ulster Defense Association’s latest essay into mural-making must rank among the crassest expressions of disregard for others’ suffering ever to find its way on to a Belfast wall. And that is saying something.
They "celebrate" what obviously the UDA (under the guise of the Ulster Freedom Fighters) must see as its top five atrocities. They are the Greysteele massacre in which eight died (Oct. 30, 1993), the Ormeau Road betting shop massacre in which five were murdered (Feb. 5, 1992), the shootings in an Oldpark Road betting shop which claimed the lives of three (Nov. 14, 1992), the murders of two council workers on Oct. 26, 1993, and an attack on the Devenish Arms pub that claimed one life and seriously injured a 8-year old boy who was shot in the head and lost an eye (Dec. 22, 1991).
The UDA’s Shankill Road unit, "C" company, which was apparently responsible for the new mural, already uses a line from a Tina Turner song, "Simply the Best" as a kind of motto, so it is not surprising, though a little weird, that it should want to adorn its latest work with a pop lyric. After all, nothing could be more appropriate for an organization which thinks of its murders in terms of a "Top Five" than to use pop songs. Under the mural the inscription reportedly reads, "Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?" — a line taken from Van Morrison’s "Days Like This."
Van Morrison sang that song in December 1995 when President Clinton visited Belfast to celebrate the success of the peace process to the cheers of a crowd of about 50,000 people. He performed just before the president lit the Christmas tree in front of the City Hall. All of which adds a layer of cynicism to the new mural which is so sick as to be truly startling.
Bear in mind the nature of the victims the UDA is boasting about. Those who died in the attacks were not IRA gunmen or terrorist organizers or even politically prominent individuals from the nationalist community. They were ordinary people, harmlessly enjoying a bet or a night out at a pub. They included a 15-year-old boy, James Kennedy, murdered in the Ormeau Road attack, an 81-year-old pensioner, James Moore, one of the oldest victims of the Troubles, a 19-year-old woman Karen Thompson, both of whom died in the Greysteele massacre. Also among the UDA’s victims in the Greysteele attack was a 54-year-old Protestant, John Burns, who had been a member of the Ulster Defense Regiment.
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Loyalists are not the only ones to indulge in this kind of perverse gloating. I remember seeing a mural on a wall in Beechmount in West Belfast which proclaimed, "A recent survey shows Semtex is killing more germs than Vortex [a popular drain cleanser] Ha Ha." It was November 1988, just a few weeks before a 6-pound Semtex bomb brought down the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing more than 200 passengers as well as people on the ground. The fact that the people who put it up on the wall were thinking of the victims of the Provisional IRA who were dismembered by under-car booby-trap bombs made up of the explosives makes it no less grotesque.
The "Sniper at Work" road sign in South Armagh is yet another example, depicting the outline of a hooded gunman waving a rifle in one hand, his other fist raised in triumph.
British soldiers serving in the North have been known to exhibit a similar ghoulish insensitivity. After a unit of paratroopers shot dead two teenagers in a stolen car in West Belfast in September 1990, a BBC television program revealed that soldiers had constructed a mock-up of the car, a Vauxhall Astra, in Palace barracks, Holywood. Inside the mock-up was the papier-mâché model of a bloodied head. A notice proclaimed: "Vauxhall Astra. Built by robots. Driven by joyriders. Stopped by A company" — a reference to a popular advertising catch phrase for a car of the period.
While it is hard to find an excuse for this kind of thing, one can make the case that the earlier examples all took place during the height of the conflict, when people were losing friends and loved ones, and might have felt the need to indulge in a bit of vengeful gloating over whatever "successes" their side had just scored. But the recent UDA "top five hits" list went up during the longest period of peace that Northern Ireland has enjoyed in more than 30 years. It is entirely at odds with the sentiment that loyalists expressed on Oct. 13, 1994, when they announced their cease-fire. In the name of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, which included the UDA, Gusty Spence, the founder of the modern UVF, read the statement, which said as part of its overall declaration of a cessation of violence:
"In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 25 years, abject and true remorse. No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during this conflict."
This awareness of other people’s suffering was perhaps the most memorable feature of the announcement and it was reiterated shortly afterward when loyalist speakers, representing the UVF and the UDA, visited New York and Washington to explain their political position. It was welcomed by all who heard it.
What has happened in the meantime to turn an "abject and true remorse" for other people’s pain into a perverse gloating over it? Part of the problem lies within the UDA, where a faction led by Johnny Adair (former commander of "C" company, aka "Simply the Best"), is trying to take up the role of assassinated loyalist leader Billy Wright. Adair’s faction announced it was ending the cease-fire two weeks ago, only to retract the statement. Then during last week’s Drumcree confrontation, Adair led 50 UDA men, all wearing "C" company T-shirts, to Portadown to applaud three masked gunmen who announced on behalf of the Loyalist Volunteer Force that "Billy Wright did not die in vain."
Adair is clearly engaged in a dangerous power play within loyalism, one that is marked by growing hostility between the UDA and UVF and that feeds off current Protestant insecurity and frustration over Drumcree and other unwelcome changes. Unfortunately, we have seen "days like this" before and they have usually ended in bloodshed.