It was 1983 and form 3A had prepared well for the Dungannon Festival. It was always a big night when the local schools competed for the prize for the best play. This year it was a risky choice because we had decided to write and perform a play about the events that took place in Claudy on July 31st 1972. It was both brave and crazy for the same reason – because we were still living through it all. We were still close to the day to day experiences of bombs and bullets and reports of killings. In fact, Dungannon made up part of what came to be known as the murder triangle. So it was both brave and crazy to think of and perform such a play but it gave an opportunity too for us to talk about things that, back then, we didn’t often talk about. We constructed the play around James Simmons Ballad of Claudy and so it began:
The Sperrins surround it
The Faughan flows by
At each end of Main Street the hills and the sky….
I remember who played Artie Hone, how we stacked the cans to represent the shop. And I remember the awful roar as we set off simultaneous recordings of a bomb explosion all around the hall. And then the hush and the trembling fear and the trying to get the play started and finished after the drama that had clearly shaken everyone.
How much more vivid it must still be for those who were at Claudy that day in 1972. I am reminded of the ongoing suffering, what people live through, the flashbacks people have, the voices they hear and the emptiness of no one coming through the door. Despite the forty year gap these things don’t go away, injuries heal and then begin to trouble again with age, mental scars are easily opened and the wounds run very deep. Then there is the wondering – how they might have turned out. Would there have been a wedding, a graduation, children, maybe even grandchildren by now? Would there have been laughter and love and all the opportunities that people living in a society where they can flourish and grow should have? What would it have been like to have them around? What would they have been like?
Somewhere not far up the road, Operation Motorman was underway when it all kicked off in Claudy and somewhere up the road two other young people had the gift of life taken from them. So we are reminded by Martin McGuinness whose strong words of condemnation have to be attended to:
The deaths and injuries caused in Claudy on 31 July 1972 were wrong. The events of that day were appalling and indefensible and they should not have happened. All of the deaths and injuries inflicted on totally innocent people in this quiet village 40 years ago should motivate everyone in our society to ensure such terrible tragedies never happen again.
But it is still hard to hear this from Martin because he played some role in all of this. So to hear the plea for moral remembering from him sticks in the throat and twists the stomach:
All of the families of those who died or were injured deserve and are entitled to the truth about the deaths of their loved ones. We must collectively increase our efforts to heal the deep hurt caused by the Claudy bombings and all of the suffering in 1972, and continue to build on the progress of our peace process
Yet that plea sits beside a strong statement of regret and as much clarity that anyone can give that it shouldn’t have happened. No comfort in some ways to those who have lost and no comfort in light of a slow inquiry into what really happened that day. There have been inquiries – HET, OPONI – and clearly there are things to be discovered. But there remains the question of sorry to which we all attended some months ago. It is a question that some are wondering about and wondering if the sorry Republicans were challenged to consider has gone away. There are sorry’s to be said all around and they have to be meaningful and they are going to have to have some truth content to them as well. Loyalists know it too and they are looking for that conversation about sorry to carry on. But who is going to make the sorry? How will it be done? Is a statement to the press from the ‘Deputy First Minister’ what sorry entails or can we actually find a more real and a more relational way to get to the sorry?
We are only just about a week beyond the anniversary of Bloody Friday and only a few weeks ahead of the anniversary of the Ballymurphy killings. And then so many in between, many of them obscured by the big events but not obscured to the loved ones. So much pain and suffering and so many unanswered questions. Such a depth of healing that is required and such a journey to be made as we not only look for answers but remember again all that happened.
For some of us remembering is something that only happens from time to time when prodded by the anniversaries, when called to remember by historical moment. For others the luxury of forgetting doesn’t exist. Remembering is every day, day after day and hour and hour. Remembering is with every waking breath. They aren’t here. They are gone. There are no answers.
There are no answers because there are still too many people in places of power who want to protect either themselves or things they suspect. The readiness for risk taking, even risk taking in the sense of providing a generic ‘no names attached’ truth, seems to be limited. There are all sorts of fears abounding, not least the fear of legitimizing a campaign of violence that ripped the heart and nearly the soul too out of this society. But if the fears are not faced and something constructed to move us on into a better future then all we will have is more of the same and it will be built on suspicion and lies and the dirty past that will eventually collapse in on itself. There are some who argue that we need to keep on moving forward incrementally, others that all we need to do is hunker down. Some of the victims are far from wrong when they argue that society is just waiting for them to die. But just waiting for them to die will not make a better future when the suspicions, fears, inequalities, immoralities and corruptions of the past are only left to fester while here and there some people do time and many others don’t.
Whatever we do we aren’t about getting individuals off the hook. We aren’t about cleaning a few people up for the public eye and we aren’t about relieving a few people of the worry about the knock at the door. What we have to be about is constructing a society which is founded on trust – or at least more trust than we have had – founded on the will to trust, on the desire for a future in which everyone can flourish and in which no one is pushed out the edges. I think we are also after a society in which is it quite legitimate to hold different long-term political aspirations but shared short-term goals. To do that some people need to heal either by hearing or telling and others need to find a way to sign up to something new and to leave behind a past that bore little fruit, other than the rotting fruit of destruction. We aren’t going to get there the way we are going right now. Communities know it and there are risks being taken among people who once were sworn enemies. They are willing to look into each others eyes and while trust isn’t the first emotion they are prepared to hold out for that and work for that. They are prepared to construct a better way locally, a shared way which secures different identities in relationship with each other. It’s time for leadership in the places of power to match what is going on on the streets, in some places at least. Soon it will be the anniversary of the killing of 11 people in Ballymurphy and to my shame I knew nothing about that until a few years ago.