We still haven’t resolved the injustices of our past

Posted By: May 23, 2016

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, May 23, 2016

WHAT makes a great speech? Obviously the words are crucial but the occasion and location can also be important.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would not have had the same impact in a meeting of the US Congress instead of at the site of the Civil War battle.

Emotion and sincerity are essential: the words must come from the speaker’s heart. This dawned on me some years ago as I listened to that fine orator, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, addressing a meeting outside the GPO in Dublin. If you mean what you say and feel strongly enough about the subject, the right words will nearly always follow.

These thoughts arose following a speech I heard at a wreath-laying ceremony in Dublin to mark the 42nd anniversary the single greatest atrocity of the Troubles, in which 33 people were killed when car-bombs exploded without warning on 17 May 1974 in Monaghan town and at three different locations in Dublin.

A monument now stands at the bottom of Talbot Street where one of the car-bombs exploded. There were about 200 people at the ceremony, including relatives of the victims. It was haunting to observe a participant praying silently as she clutched a wreath in her hand. What thoughts were going her head, what memories of a dearly departed loved one?

The main speaker was related to other victims of the conflict. Well-known in the north but not the south, Alan McBride lost his wife Sharon and father-in-law Desmond Frizzell in the horrific Shankill Road bomb that killed 10 people including one of the perpetrators, in October 1993. Given that the Dublin-Monaghan victims were mainly if not exclusively from the nationalist tradition, McBride’s presence added an extra dimension to the Talbot Street event.

Although I saw no newspaper coverage of it in the south, his speech was electrifying.

It was a heartfelt plea for truth and justice for the relatives of all those who have died, ranging from taxi-driver Michael McGibbon, shot dead recently by dissident republicans in north Belfast, to the Dublin-Monaghan families and the many thousands of others, including himself and his loved ones.

As he put it: “It doesn’t really matter whether it was four weeks ago or 42 years ago, the questions of truth and justice were as relevant then as they are today.”

It was inspiring to see someone crossing the community divide on the island to tell suffering relatives that he knew what they were going through as he, too, had suffered a similar loss. Half-way through the speech I noticed a tall, bearded figure in the crowd, listening intently to every word.

Whatever his previous activities, Gerry Adams played his part in the end to bring the two communities together. He also attracted a great deal of odium when he carried the coffin of Shankill bomber Thomas Begley although his defenders would say that if he had not done so Adams would have lost much influence with the Provisionals at the time.

Alluding to the Sinn Féin leader’s presence, McBride recalled how he used to picket meetings in the US where Adams was speaking, but he added: “It’s very changed times now of course and I respect and acknowledge the work that Gerry Adams has done for the peace process.”

The speaker recalled a key episode where he met a former republican prisoner at a conference in Scotland who said to him: “What happened that day on the Shankill Road was wrong and I, as an Irish republican, am sorry.”

This meant a lot to McBride who was prepared as a result to listen to the republican’s account of how the introduction of internment as well as the activities of loyalists and the British army influenced his decision to join the IRA.

McBride called on all sides to the conflict to acknowledge the harm and the hurt they had caused without trying to justify it because, as he put it, “there was in my view no justification for any of it”.

He encouraged the Dublin-Monaghan relatives “to continue to call on the British state to release whatever documents that need to be released” and he urged the politicians on all sides to find a way of dealing with all the hurt of the past.

Most movingly of all, he concluded by saying that, on his way to Dublin by train, he recalled May 17 was also a significant date for him personally: “Today would be my wife’s 52nd birthday.”

On my way back up Talbot Street after the ceremony, I recalled that here, also, republican Seán Treacy (25) died in a shoot-out during the War of Independence. Nearly 100 years on and we still haven’t finally resolved the situation.