Terrorism in Northern Ireland: Protestants and Catholics are coping with decades of violence

The Mobile Register, Sunday,October 28, 2001

Terrorism in Northern Ireland: Protestants and Catholics are coping with decades of violence

By MARK HOLAN

Staff Reporter

NORTHERN IRELAND – John Kelly of Derry carried his fatally wounded brother to an ambulance; David Killen of Omagh carried his neighbor’s empty coffin to the grave.

Each man witnessed landmark events in the long-term terrorism known as The Troubles: the January 1972 Bloody Sunday riots in Derry, when British troops killed 14 unarmed civil rights marchers, and the August 1998 bomb blast in Omagh that killed 29 Saturday afternoon shoppers.

Like others in this northeast corner of the divided Irish island, Kelly and Killen view post-Sept. 11 America from a painful perspective.

“I sat and watched the towers being attacked on television and could not believe my eyes,” said Kelly. “It was one of the most horrific acts of terrorism I have witnessed, even if you put it side-by-side to any event that has happened over the last 30 years in our country.”

In the grim math of terrorism, however, the Omagh bombing produced a higher ratio of victims-to-residents in the CountyTyrone town of 17,000 than the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Sectarian violence between Catholics who want to reunite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic and Protestants who want to remain part of Britain, has killed 3,600 people and left thousands more maimed for life since the late 1960s.

Northern Ireland is roughly the size of Mobile, Baldwin, Washington and Clarke counties. The entire Irish island is about two-thirds the size of Alabama, with a total population near 5 million people.

Last week, the long trudge toward peace in Northern Ireland took a historic step forward as the Irish Republican Army began to destroy its underground weapons arsenal, and the British government began to dismantle military watchtowers, long-hated symbols of what some here consider an occupying force.

Those are positive developments, to be sure. But just as President Bush has warned that America’s struggle against terrorism will stretch years into the future, only a fool would expect that this will end all violence in Northern Ireland.

“Sept. 11 brought a lot of bad memories back,” said Killen, who publishes a weekly newspaper about 100 yards from the Omagh blast site. “People here can relate to what’s happening in America. There were people here that had to bury coffins filled with sand bags because they didn’t have a body.”

The Omagh bombing was the worst single atrocity of The Troubles. It came a few months after the Good Friday peace agreement created a new power-sharing government between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists. (The terms “republicans” and “loyalists,” respectively, are typically used when referring to the violent, paramilitary or terrorist tactics of each side.)

But violence sometimes has the opposite of its intended effect.

Some say the outrage of Omagh galvanized the Northern Ireland peace process, in the same way that worldwide anti-terrorism sentiments since Sept. 11 may have spurred last week’s move by the IRA.

Within days of the attack on America, Omagh residents organized a service to pay their respects to the victims, adding a U.S. flag to the small MemorialGarden on the banks of the River Strule that honors the local dead.

Omagh residents also provided an extra measure of Irish hospitality to American tourists who were suddenly unable to fly back home, and they sent a trauma team to New York to counsel Sept. 11 survivors.

“For a long time people didn’t go into that part of town; it was just too horrific,” Killen said. “Some people said they would never go back. Others said that would be giving in to the terrorists and wanted to reclaim the area.”

Today, workers are building new shops and a community center where the 500-pound car bomb exploded at the corner of Market Street and Drumragh Avenue. Suspects associated with an IRA splinter group are facing trial.

If justice prevails in Omagh Kelly and others in Derry have waited three decades for a full accounting of what became known as Bloody Sunday.

(The 1965 civil rights march in Selma, also known as Bloody Sunday, didn’t register much with Kelly. “I guess there have been a lot of bloody Sundays,” he said.)

In many ways, the shooting deaths of Catholic civil rights marchers by British paratroopers ignited The Troubles, and the flames were fanned even higher by a government review of the incident that most agree was a whitewash.

But a new inquiry has been under way since last year inside the 100-year-old Guild Hall, where the glow of barristers’ flat-screen computers glint in the stained-glass windows. The proceedings are broadcast locally on closed-circuit television.

Kelly, 53, watches the testimony across the street at the headquarters of the Bloody Sunday Trust.

The fund provides support for victims’ families and operates an exhibition area for the public. Black-and-white video of the mayhem plays in one corner, posters of the annual remembrance marches hang on one wall, the blood-stained Derry Civil Rights Association banner carried by protesters hangs on another wall.

In a gallery of photographs of the victims, the pictures of Kelly’s brother show a 17-year-old with longish hair and an impish grin. He was the seventh of 13 children, training to become an electrical engineer.

Michael Kelly was a “keen pigeon farmer” with a sweet tooth, the small biography next to the pictures reads. John Kelly said that a Mars candy bar in his brother’s pocket on Bloody Sunday remains among the evidence held by the British government.

The surviving brother has not yet testified. He said the families are “bearing up well considering the emotion and stress they have to endure on a daily basis,” reliving the events of 30 years ago.

“The most arduous part” of the inquiry, he said, will come when British troops testify and “we have to listen to the lies that most certainly will vomit from their mouths.”

The schedule of witnesses is expected to last at least another two years. Like the peace process itself, there will be plenty of hope and disappointment along the way, with the final outcome anyone’s guess.

“We will be here as long as we need to be,” Kelly said. “What’s a couple more years, since we have waited nearly 30 to hopefully get truth and justice?”

As in New York and Washington, memorials to the dead will remain part of the streetscape of Omagh and Derry, regardless of new construction or the removal of military watchtowers.

“Let our revenge be the laughter of our children,” reads an inscription in one Derry monument. In Omagh, a handwritten note blurred by rain said, “Time slips past, but the heartache lasts.”

Mobile Register staff reporter Mark Holan wrote this piece after traveling to Ireland on a grant from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which promotes better relations with Europe in the spirit of the postwar Marshall Plan.

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