‘Uncomfortable Conversations’: Legacy of past to be discussed in Derry event

Alan McBride whose wife Sharon and his father-in-law John Frizell were among nine people killed when the IRA planted a bomb in a  fishmonger's in Belfast's Shankill Road in October 1993''Photo Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker Press
Alan McBride whose wife Sharon and his father-in-law John Frizell were among nine people killed when the IRA planted a bomb in a fishmonger's in Belfast's Shankill Road in October 1993''Photo Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker Press
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A panel discussion concentrating on the past in Northern Ireland is due to take place in the Waterside tomorrow night.

Under the banner of ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’, a panel consisting of Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the Shankhill bomb in 1993, Chief Constable of the PSNI George Hamilton, former Victims’ Commissioner Patricia McBride and Sinn Fein’s National Chairman Declan Kearney will discuss the legacy of the past and how we as a society move forward from the pain caused by the conflict.

An IRA bomb in Frizell's Fish shop killed nine innocent people and one bomber. This picture shows a scene of devastation across the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon.

An IRA bomb in Frizell's Fish shop killed nine innocent people and one bomber. This picture shows a scene of devastation across the Shankill Road on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Alan McBride worked as a pig butcher on the Shankill Road when his wife Sharon, and father-in-law Desmond were killed in a bomb attack at the family fish shop in 1993. He was a staunch supporter of the Good Friday Agreement and actively campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum. He has been actively engaged in peace building work for the past twenty years with various agencies and is currently co-ordinator of the WAVE Trauma Centre in Belfast, an organisation that provides care and support to individuals and communities impacted by the violence in Northern Ireland. Alan is also a Commissioner for Human Rights with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Writing exclusively for the ‘Journal’ today, Alan McBride lays out his thoughts on the situation in advance of the discussion tomorrow night. The event will take place at Clooney Hall, Clooney Terrace at 7.30pm.

by Alan McBride

“No one enjoys an uncomfortable conversation, as the word ‘uncomfortable’ implies, it can be awkward, prickly and distressing. It can present a challenge to the ‘uneasy’ peace that has been established, but if we are to truly emerge from the dark days of the past into a society based on trust and respect, they need to happen. In this regard I would like to applaud the initiative shown by Declan Kearney and Sinn Fein for the conversations they have started.

“I have been on my own journey of having uncomfortable conversations for the past 20 years. I clearly remember a time when I considered it better to stand outside the room and hurl insults than to sit around a table and talk. I don’t regret taking part in those protests, it was where I was at the time following the murder of my wife by the IRA, but in terms of making difference I have discovered that dialogue is the only meaningful way forward. It was then and it still is today.

“All parties to the conflict have conversations to engage in which will prove difficult, but for the interests of this article I have Republicans in mind. So in what conversations do I feel Republicans need to engage? I think they need to have an honest debate about the past and to come clean about the present. Take the issue of ‘truth’ as a case in point. Republicans call for an Independent Truth Commission is undermined by what Unionists see as a Republican failure to tell the truth – examples often cited are Gerry Adams denial that he was in the IRA, Martin McGuinness’ testimony to the Saville Enquiry or his recollections concerning the Claudy bomb. If a truth recovery process lacks trust from the outset then is it not doomed to fail anyway, because the truth that is revealed may not be believed.

“Another issue is how Republicans often view the past through the lens of a rose tinted spectacle. I recall one conversation with a senior Republican who was making the point that Republicans could not be sectarian and that sectarianism played no part in what they referred to as ‘the war’.

“I had a man with me who was seriously injured in his late teens in a drive by shooting carried out by the IRA on a group of young men as they spent the proceeds of their first pay check at a wee chippie in the Loyalist area of Belfast. He didn’t agree with this Republicans analysis and later made the point about Republicans rewriting history, hiding behind the terminology of war, rather than holding their hands up to the fact that atrocities were committed against the Unionist community simply because they were Unionist. I am not diminishing the conflict to a sectarian battle between two warring tribes, but sectarianism did play its part and as such it should be acknowledged.

“This is an important point that strikes at the heart of Unionist fears around dealing with the past. That in some way, whatever process is utilized will be used (or abused) by Republicans to present another narrative of the conflict that views the IRA as a heroic army that fought the British Army to a stalemate, and that rather than be ridiculed and held to account for their actions, IRA volunteers should be celebrated and their dead commemorated. So am I saying that Republicans shouldn’t remember their dead? Not at all, but they need to get the balance right between remembrance and glorification.

“These conversations are about the past and no doubt there is a reticence to get involved because some people view the past as place that they left behind some time ago and they have no wish to return there, even for a visit. But if Republicans are serious about participating in ‘uncomfortable conversations’, then those conversations cannot just be about what the British did, or how the Unionists were responsible for decades of misrule and discrimination, but must also confront their own demons.

“I recall reading an article in An Phoblacht some years ago in which former IRA man Jackie McMullan was encouraging Republicans to do the right thing regarding the truth. I would echo Jackie’s call. Of course there will be those who will always be sceptical. For some the hurt is too severe, or the hatred and distrust too deep, but they should never be allowed to prevent the rest of us from moving on towards a new society built upon respect for diversity with equality and human rights as the bed rock.

“That said, the door to dialogue must always be left ajar, remembering that there were a lot of Johnny Come Latelys to the peace process, be it Republicans that chose the way of the ballot box and the armalite before the eventual realisation that these were mutually contradictory. Or the British, who after another bloody atrocity told us it would stick in their throats to talk to Republicans, whilst holding secret talks anyway. Or Unionists who refused to talk to those who had blood on their hands, whilst having no difficulty sharing platforms with Loyalist killers.

“Could I finish by suggesting another ‘uncomfortable conversation’ that I believe needs to happen before we get into a process of looking backwards. The violence that has occurred since 1998 right up to the present day, involving Republicans and Loyalists is reprehensible. It casts a shadow over any attempt to reach out the hand of friendship and betrays initiatives designed to promote reconciliation. If the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of the ‘Troubles’ then it also marked the end of paramilitarism, no matter if it’s about settling old scores or taking out those considered to be criminals, there can be no place in our society for organisations or individuals carrying out summary justice.

“I would implore those within leadership in our communities to do all that they can to turn those responsible for recent violence over to the PSNI and to be resolute in their condemnation of such actions – making it clear that they have no part to play in the future of this place.”