A discussion at Clooney Hall in Derry’s Waterside on Wednesday night saw the Chief Constable of the PSNI reiterate his belief that the Provisional IRA are no longer involved in terrorism despite his comments in recent days that former members of the organisation were involved in the recent murder of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan.
The panel based talk labelled ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’ was part of this year’s Gasyard Wall Feile and was set to seek views on the legacy of the past in connection to the Troubles. The panel consisted of Sinn Fein National Chairperson Declan Kearney, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Alan McBride whose wife was killed in an IRA bomb on the Shankill Road in 1993 and former Northern Ireland Victim’s Commissioner, Patricia McBride.
Despite the political recriminations of the last few days, the Sinn Fein National Chairman and the PSNI Chief Constable shook hands prior to the meeting. The opening of the discussion was briefly interrupted when Danny Bradley, brother of Seamus Bradley shot dead by the British Army on July 31, 1972 berated the Chief Constable and shouted “what a shame”. Last week the ‘Journal’ revealed that never before seen colour images of Seamus Bradley added weight to the belief he was tortured by the British Army after he had been shot.
Sinn Fein National Chairman, Declan Kearney said that all sides involved in the conflict, including the IRA bore responsibility to account for their actions. He contended that the Good Friday Agreement had drawn a line under the conflict, but “families continue to suffer in Derry.” He referred to the relatives of the victim’s of Bloody Sunday, members of the British security forces and the family of Patsy Gillespie, murdered by the IRA when he was forced to drive a vehicle containing explosives towards a checkpoint on the Derry-Donegal border in October, 1990.
“The hurt of war still needs to be healed even after the war has ended. This can only be achieved through respect, generosity, forgiveness and trust,” he said.
Mr Kearney also asserted that the mechanisms on dealing with the past set out in the Stormont House Agreement provided a way forward. He said that all those killed including members of the British security forces, IRA victims and members of the IRA were equal in terms of victimhood.
He said: “A collective acknowledgement of the pain caused by the past was necessary in order to make sure it didn’t happen again. Whatever political challenges we face in the days ahead, we must work together to confront fears and have the humility to acknowledge all hurt and the courage to forgive for the sake of our children.”
Addressing the discussion, Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “People have questioned the appropriateness of my attendance here tonight, but I am not shying away from having uncomfortable conversations. We share a troubled past. So many people in this city have suffered loss. They have heartbreaking stories from our dark history as raw today as when the hurt first occurred.”
Mr Hamilton also said that hurt had occurred in the “police family”. The situation was not “easy” he said, but “we must be brave, honest and open for the generations that will follow. As Chief Constable I often have uncomfortable conversations, but it will not restrict my ability to enforce the law without fear or favour.”
Acknowledging his recent assessment that the Provisional IRA is still in existence, he said “its purpose has radically changed in order to promote a peaceful republican agenda. I accept the bona fides of the Sinn Fein leadership that it wants to continue to work for peace, but I will not allow political commentary to interfere with policing.”
Mr Hamilton also said: “The police service does not hold all the answers, but I will not compound grief by setting unrealistic expectations.”
Currently there are 53 inquests relating to a total of 86 Trouble’s related deaths. The current absence of a coroner in Northern Ireland has caused delays in the process something which the PSNI chief recognised has eroded confidence in the role of the police. He too contended that he believed the establishment of a Historical Inquiries Unit was the way forward.
“There is a challenge for everyone to respond. We cannot opt out of the past,” he said.
Alan McBride, whose wife Sharon was killed when an IRA bomb ripped through her workplace on the Shankill Road in 1993, told the audience that he had been stopped at the door on his way in and asked by a journalist if he thought the meeting was important. He had replied that it was important to have these discussions prior to the Good Friday Agreement and remains important to have them now.
“It is brave of George Hamilton to attend here tonight. These conversations have to be real. My wife was murdered back in 1993. Gerry Adams carried the coffin of the bomber Thomas Begley and I embarked on a personal vendetta against him. But, where did it get me? I used to shout abuse at Adams but then I started to consider the conflict and the reasons for it. I got involved in developing a conversation instead of standing outside the room shouting in.
“But, 17 years on from the Good Friday Agreement I feel slightly let down by some people on all sides. Stormont in its current form, just isn’t working. There are huge areas that need to be worked on. Nothing is working in relation to dealing with the past and the present situation doesn’t bode well for the future. We could talk for another 1,000 years and nothing much would change. The architecture to deal with it is there. We just need to get on with it and implement it.”
Mr McBride did take issue with Declan Kearney’s assessment that all victims of the conflict had equal status.
“My wife was murdered. It is a disgrace to put her name on the same page as the bombers Sean Kelly and Thomas Begley. Do I recognise that Thomas Begley’s mother has lost a son and has suffered? Yes, I do. But, to equate my wife and Thomas Begley is offensive.”
Alan McBride also pointed out that the same working class communities that bore the brunt of the Troubles continue to do so. He said that in his role of working at WAVE Trauma Centre he encounters a lot of hopelessness amongst young men in particular who see no prospects for themselves after leaving school.
“I appeal to all the political parties to go back to the vision of 1998 because hope has disappeared,” he said.
Former Victim’s Commissioner Patricia McBride referring to the probable withdrawal of the Ulster Unionist Party from the Northern Ireland Executive said it was good to at the discussion on the day “Stormont’s stitching had come apart.”
She continued: “21 years after the ceasefires, why are we still seeing virtual and real peace walls being built. It’s because of a lack of honesty. The conflict didn’t begin in 1969. The UUP grabbed the media limelight today, but for 50 years administered a single party date. Their Special Powers Act was the inspiration of for South African apartheid. Nationalists and republicans deserve an apology from the UUP for 50 years of misrule.
Using the example of the funeral of Seamus Heaney she said that not one unionist representative had attended it.
“How can I expect my heritage to be respected if they wouldn’t do it for a Nobel Laureate? There are solutions. The notion of politicians saying nothing can be agreed until everything is agreed is wrong. We need to agree on what can be agreed and this will create the momentum to move beyond the past,” she said.