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A View North: The politics of death: some victims forgotten

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

A letter writer to the Irish Echo recently lamented the fact that when Queen Elizabeth II visited Northern Ireland a few weeks ago as part of her Golden Jubilee tour, she visited the site of the Omagh bombing but not the site of the Bloody Sunday shootings. The letter went on to mention a few other sites that she might have graced with her royal presence, including the street where one of the three bombs went off that devastated Dublin on May 17, 1974.

I suppose someone was bound to complain that somebody’s dead were being “dissed,” no matter what precautions her majesty (or anybody else, for that matter) might have taken to ensure otherwise. This is despite the fact that most people in Ireland, north and south, would regard Omagh as the nearest thing to an ecumenical, nonsectarian atrocity site that you could visit safe from the accusation of being one-sided in where you decided to bestow your sympathies. After all, the bombing killed a representative cross-section of Northern Ireland’s population — 15 Catholics, 11 Protestants, one Mormon, and two Spanish tourists. But obviously for some, balance is not measured by weighing the Catholic dead against the Protestant dead. It has to include a political dimension.

It is part of the hideous nature of Northern Ireland politics that political agendas pursue people beyond the grave. For the truth is that some deaths are more politically significant than others. Those who are remembered as the significant dead are easily listed: the Bloody Sunday victims, the 10 hunger strikers, Patrick Finucane and the Omagh bombing victims. That is, some 53 individuals out of more than 3,600, a tiny percentage of the total.

How this comes about can be quite a complex procedure.

Why, for example, are the deaths of the 13 civil rights demonstrators shot on Bloody Sunday in Derry more significant than — to take an almost random example — those who died in the bomb attack on the La Mon House Hotel outside Belfast? Jan. 30, 1972 is emblazoned into the consciousness of an entire nation. But most people would not even remember the date when Provisional IRA incendiary blast bombs burned 12 people alive. The latter took place on the evening of Feb. 17, 1978, during a dinner dance of the Irish Collie Club. Seven of the dead were women.

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The La Mon House deaths are now merely part of the grim background of the “Troubles” (other than to those who lost loved ones and relatives in the incident), whereas Bloody Sunday remains a prominent issue, 30 years after it took place. At one level, there seems an obvious answer as to why this should be the case. The Bloody Sunday demonstrators were killed by agents of the state, victims of the forces of law and order who were acting in the name of a recognized civil authority. It raises important questions about the nature of the state that would permit such a thing to happen. For 30 years, some people have been trying to find answers to those questions. In a democracy, the state has to be held accountable for its actions.

What kind of questions are posed by the murders of 12 innocent men and women who went out for a night’s fun only to find themselves engulfed by a fireball? At the time it occurred, it was regarded as one of the most horrific acts of terror ever to take place during the conflict. Workers walked out of their jobs in sympathy with the victims, Belfast International Airport shut down for an hour, and some donated part of their wage-packet to a fund for the victims’ families. There was a massive criminal investigation, and eventually in 1981 one man from the Falls Road area pleaded guilty to 12 counts of manslaughter. But the general public allowed deaths to fade.

Twenty years later, on the anniversary of the murders, a memorial service was held in a church in East Belfast. A woman who had been injured in the attack told a reporter: “I had to come, but I’m still suffering a whole lot. I’m in and out of hospital. You get tired of it all and wonder that it’s all for.”

Obviously, any such tragedy raises questions, but they apparently are not of a type that can be answered by a public inquiry, since as far as I am aware no one has ever demanded one.

In fact, at the time, the authorities went out of their way to highlight the horror, distributing posters which showed the charred carcass of one of the victims. It was a burned stub of a human being and it reminded me of my father’s description of the corpses he helped dig out of a house hit by a Nazi bomb during the Belfast blitz in April 1941. The campaign was aimed at discrediting the IRA. Clearly, it failed.

That is, the deaths, however horrible, in the end were not viewed as politically significant. Why not?

Perhaps because the Protestant community expected no better of the Provisional IRA, while the Catholic community attributed the deaths to a horrible accident because they expected better of the Provisional IRA. So silence descended on their deaths.

But should it? Over 20 years later, many people feel aggrieved as Northern Ireland moves forward with the peace process, bringing former enemies of the state into state power, and men who led the Provisional IRA in 1978 are now wined and dined by the establishment.

Some demand a kind of equality in death and are outraged that the loss of their loved ones is being forgotten. Unfortunately, that is true of the overwhelming majority of the more than 3,600 who died. Yet deaths can be made significant, if you have a community behind you with strong traditions. Witness the “celebration” Sinn Fein held in Dublin a few months ago to recognize their dead volunteers. The party held a dinner, giving the volunteers’ families a copy of the “Book of the Dead” and a sculpture each.

They were trying to answer the deep need that those left behind feel that the deaths of their loved ones meant something. Who wants to face the thought that their loved ones’ deaths were meaningless?

Yet, that is the awful situation that many thousands of people in Northern Ireland must confront for the rest of their lives.

Visit Jack Holland’s website: www.jackholland.com.

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