I didn’t hear about the Westminster bombing until 24 hours after it happened. I was in transit, and then in a place without papers, TV or internet. This saved me hours of worry because the dead and maimed had been named by the time I caught up with the news. When I saw the pictures and read Facebook reports of the fear and chaos, I had a flashback to 9/11 in Washington DC and the Al Quada atrocities in Pennsylvania and NYC that day; to the Paris restaurant bomb where my friend’s son and his new wife stepped out over the dead and injured to survive; and to the many bombs and shootings that killed more than 3000 people over 30 years in Northern Ireland.
I lived in Belfast from 1968 to 1979, and went back there to work on and off in the 1980s. I still shudder at the memory of the minister’s son– 12 years’ old I think–and the others blown up at the bus station I passed through every day on my way home from school. That was the IRA. I remember too the red-haired girl my age who spoke so well at her father’s funeral: her dad shot dead in a random attack by loyalist paramilitaries. Could the same thing happen to my dad? Fear clutched at my teenage heart. I think back to the undercover police car on our street, protecting a neighbor who was senior in the RUC, and the time when 25 year old Elizabeth McCracken,who worked with my father, was killed by a bomb at the La Mon hotel, maybe 10 miles from our house. As a young journalist I interviewed a man hit in the head by a British soldier’s plastic bullet. He had a crater in his skull and permanent headaches. He was hard to interview because he had difficulty remembering and ordering his words. So much loss.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, to indicate the deep damage terrorism does– not only to those hurt and bereaved, but to those on the periphery. The blood seeps everywhere and leaves an indelible stain.
Passing though Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport last week, I heard of the peaceful death of NI Deputy First Minister and former IRA strategist Martin McGuinness. I did not mourn his passing. By the time I clicked into my computer 24 hours later posts on my Facebook feed were full of praise for his part in the Northern Ireland Peace process. From what I saw, it took two Northern Ireland-born journalists– the Spectator’s Jenny McCartney and NBC’s Bill Neely –to temper the adulation for McGuinness’s work in the last 20 years with a reminder of his early days, directing, if not himself detonating, bombs, and sending street fighters on killing sprees. (See their journalism below.)
Like me, Jenny and Bill come from the Protestant tradition and were raised and educated in varying degrees of affluence in Belfast. They are about my age. Martin McGuinness was born 10 years before us. He was Catholic and brought up in Derry at a time when voting rights were skewed in favor of educated Prods, and when people living in poverty were denied jobs because they had a Bogside address. He had a lot to be angry and vengeful about. He was right that much needed to change in Northern Ireland. In Belfast in 1968, (of course influenced by my family– I wasn’t THAT precocious) the tween me supported the peaceful protests of the civil rights movement. But if I had been in Martin’s DM boots, would that have been enough? I don’t know. Would I have picked up a placard or a kalashnikov? I can’t say I’m certain. I don’t like McGuinness’s choice but I understand what drove it.
For the record, neither did I mourn the recent death (quiet, peaceful) of Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley. Mr Paisley did not himself commit acts of violent terrorism, but his words in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were often dangerously inflammatory and I have no doubt provided fuel for loyalist paramilitary firebombs. His hands were clean, but his tongue was a terrorist weapon. His speeches and preaching fired up disgruntled working class Protestants who, with their jobs at the shipyard fast disappearing, needed territory and hegemony to feel powerful and relevant. I find Paisley harder to understand than McGuinness. Just as Trump is not my President, so Paisley was not my Protestant.
It is good of course that both McGuinness and Paisley bought into the Peace Process, working with the British, Irish, American and European governments — and Nobel prize winners John Hume and David Trimble, loyalist paramilitary leader David Ervine, countless church leaders, and endless community advocates–to agree an uneasy truce that saw them work together fairly well for 20 years largely blast-free years. Thank you for that, gentlemen.
But can one belated right undo countless, terrible wrongs? Think of the lives and time and money that could have been saved if angry people could have sat down and talked in 1968, instead of leaving it for thirty years…
When I and my siblings fought as children my dad would always say “You’ll have to make it up in the end so you might as well make it up now.” We never listened to him and I don’t suppose the world’s most recent batch of terrorists, or those still to hatch, will heed these words either. It will mean more broken lives, broken hearts and broken countries.
Sit down and talk about it, damn you, and stop blowing up our iconic buildings and best people. There’s something in it for you. There is no such thing as suicide peacemaking. You’ll likely live a long and happy life. I’ll get Bill Clinton to speak at your funeral.