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Loose talk about lost lives

Fifty years ago, on 20 December 1971, just before 5 o’clock in the evening, Margaret McCorry, a 20-year old Catholic, a single woman employed as a clerk, was killed waiting at a bus stop on the Crumlin Road in Belfast when IRA volunteers in a nearby house opened fire on two British army military vehicles driving up the road.

A soldier in the 9th Independent Parachute Squadron told the subsequent inquest that he was at the back of a four-ton truck carrying stores. He heard a burst of automatic gunfire and heard another soldier shout out in pain.

I saw muzzle flashes at a window of a terraced house. I cocked my weapon but then the shape of a woman came into the line of fire. I saw her put her hands up to her head and fall. I knew she had been hit and this made me feel shocked. I lowered my weapon from the aim position because the vehicle had moved away.

The man who lived in the house told the inquest he had returned home from work to find it occupied by the armed men. A dozen bullet cases were later found in the front of the house.

The inquest heard a first-aid worker went to help the wounded girl and then realised the victim was her niece.

40 years ago, on 18 November 1981, James McClintock, a married 57-year old Protestant with three children, a driver with British Telecom and former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was shot dead by the IRA when driving close to his home at Foyle Crescent, Newbuildings, near Derry. Waiting in a blue Ford Transit van hijacked in Shantallow earlier the same day, the gunmen opened fire when he slowed down to negotiate a difficult bend.

The Catholic bishop of Derry, Dr. Edward Daly, said he had been told by Mr. McClintock’s Catholic neighbours that he was an exemplary and good man. A Protestant clergyman said he was a devoted husband, a kind father, a committed Christian, a dedicated churchman and an excellent citizen.

The very next day, his wife’s cousin, John McKeegan, a delivery man and serving UDR member, was shot dead in Strabane as he made a delivery to a house which had been taken over by IRA men some four hours earlier.

30 years ago, on 21 December 1991, two UDA/UFF gunmen broke down the door of the home of William (“Liam”) Johnson, a 28-year old Catholic civilian who had moved to the house in Fortuna Street off the Donegall Road in Belfast just a few weeks earlier to live with his Protestant girlfriend. Both were in bed at the time but his girlfriend rose immediately on hearing the noise. One gunman rushed past her on the stairs, entered the bedroom, shot Mr. Johnson once in the side of the head before putting the gun in his victim’s mouth and firing again.

Leaving the house with his accomplice, the killer told the victim’s girlfriend: “You had better go up there. Your boyfriend is dead.” She told the inquest that her boyfriend was so worried about his safety living in the loyalist area that he wore clothes and shoes to bed.

And 20 years ago, William Stobie, a 51-year old Protestant civilian and police informer was shot dead by the UDA at 6.15 on the morning of 12 December 2001 walking to his car from the ground floor flat that he shared with his girlfriend in Belfast’s Forthriver Road. Two weeks earlier he had been cleared of involvement in the murder of solicitor, Pat Finucane, in 1989. He admitted supplying the guns for Mr. Finucane’s killing but maintained that he had provided the RUC with information which could have saved the solicitor’s life or led to the capture of his killers if the police had acted on it. His account of the killing exposed several senior UDA members involved as police informers too. Police claimed he had declined the offer of protection.

I have taken these accounts almost directly from Lost Lives — The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, accounts of each death assembled painstakingly over many years and presented in a single volume comprising over 1,600 pages by a team of journalists and researchers: David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David Movea. This edition dates from 2004, covering events up to the end of 2003. The death toll then exceeded 3,700 beginning with a cluster of three UVF killings in 1966 but thereafter more fatalities every year from 1969.

The authors say, I think fairly, that they have tried to be non-judgemental in their work, not differentiating different categories of the dead but simply providing the facts to allow readers to make their own judgements on each and all deaths. But they do allow themselves the hope:

…that this volume will stand as a monument to the sheer waste and horror of war, and that there will be no more lost lives.

If they don’t judge, I suspect they are especially affected as I certainly am by those deaths where fate seemed to add an additional layer of cruelty, more feckless in its fickleness, such as in the case of Ms. McCorry just waiting for a bus, a single example of so many deaths that were due just to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or Mrs. McClintock who lost her husband one day and her cousin the next, a common grisly co-incidence in a place of Northern Ireland’s intimate scale.

As the authors put it in their introduction:

So many people have been treated unkindly by fate. At least two women have lost two life-partners, both killed years apart. One woman survived a shooting but lost her unborn child which was buried in a tiny light-blue coffin, in unconsecrated ground next to a graveyard only yards from her home. Over and over again, the “wrong” people died. A nine-year old Londonderry boy, playing cowboys with his brother, upset a tripwire in his garden and set off a bomb which killed him. A man burst into a house in Belfast, shot dead the occupant and then exclaimed: “Christ, I’m in the wrong house.”

It is plausible to summarise the four decades of the troubles as book-ended by the initial descent and eventual dissipation of a mist or miasma of madness, leaving behind no hierarchy of villainy or victimhood, only parity of guilt and pain. The true texture is more complex than that summation.

The authors present something of an overall picture of the 3,703 deaths in a series of tables. Republican “groups” of one kind or another were responsible for 2,158 (58%). The IRA alone was responsible for almost half: 1,781. Loyalists accounted for 1,099 and the “security forces” for 365, 301 of which were assigned to the British army (including the SAS). By contrast, while 396 classified as Republicans of one kind or another died in the troubles, 503 members of the army and 509 of the locally recruited security forces (RUC/UDR/RIR) were killed.

Add to that mix, the fact that the IRA were responsible for the death of 644 “ordinary” civilians, more than all the people killed by the security forces and it is easy to present a prima facie claim that the IRA was the primary agent and engine of the troubles, to whose actions the interventions of the security forces especially represented, in general terms if not in every specific instance, a foreseeable, understandable and justifiable reaction.

Those supporting an amnesty for British soldiers facing possible trial arising from the troubles are enthused to promote this “narrative” as the story of the troubles, just as Sinn Féin are wistful that such granular details might be quietly forgotten. Lost Lives concentrates only on the deaths; who died and who was responsible. It doesn’t attempt any weighing of the dispensation of justice in relation to them. Certainly some IRA perpetrators will never now face trial for their crimes and others had their sentences reduced under the Good Friday Agreements. But many were convicted (in juryless courts) and served long prison terms, even if not always the originally designated term.

Serving soldiers were convicted in relation to only four troubles related killings. In only one case did the soldiers serve normal life sentences for murder. In two of the other cases, soldiers who received life sentences were released after a few years and allowed resume their military careers. In the last, a soldier sentenced to life was released under license after two years and his conviction overturned five years later.

Simply saying that everybody was at it and everybody suffered is only pulling the shutters down rather than offering any kind of meaningful explanation or illumination of the troubles. There will probably now never be a structured systematic process of cataloguing and cauterisation but it would serve all parties better to be reflective, open and honest, actually rather than performatively penitent, instead of being defensively propagandistic in their analysis, pointing the accusing finger vigorously at others while being largely silent about their own involvement.

Anyway, this Christmas, we should and can be grateful at least that peace reigns in the North, an uneasy rather than an enthusiastic one, but still light years better than what went before.



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Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.