No flags and no euphoria - just a blessed normality

`You remembered the details of every killing, and wondered when the madness would end'
Click to follow
NOBODY DANCED on the streets or waved flags. 1 December 1999, and the headlines said it was a historic day. It was freezing cold. Belfast winter weather. You wrap up as best you can, but the cold finds its way in sooner or later.

And as for history in the air? The truth is that you'd have been hard put to find it. No public displays of euphoria; even the politicians were restraining themselves. In the great house on the hill they were signing agreements and forming cabinets. Down on Royal Avenue, Donegall Place, Malone Road, in Andytown and the Shankill and across the rest of the rainswept city, it looked like another normal day.

But before you start to think that I'm being negative, consider that word "normal". Because that is the history of the thing. Did I ever imagine being able to use the word "normal" about Belfast without a brigade of qualifications? Today I can do it. No wry smile and no cynicism. I will leave that to the experts of the right-wing press who have scorned this peace process from the outset. "Normal" is the security barriers down and scrapped on Royal Avenue; it is the policemen walking without flak jackets on Great Victoria Street; it is all the new shops and restaurants and pubs where people don't have to worry about the bomb or gun attack. "Normal" is the news bulletin that doesn't lead off with the murder of a Catholic in North Belfast or a part-time UDR soldier in County Tyrone, which does not feature the voice of a churchman crackling over the Tannoy at another funeral.

Where was Northern Ireland, this time 10 years ago? Thanks to a stunning book, Lost Lives - the Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles, it is possible to know in tragically precise terms exactly where Ulster was. Lost Lives - written by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton - is a devastating account of the price paid for today's peace. It records the name and circumstances of death of each of the 3,600 people who died in the Troubles. It is a work that could have been written only by journalists who have lived through the Troubles and who have stayed with the story; the dedication involved in the research and writing should induce humility on the part of the rest of us who have passed through Belfast as reporters, moving on to foreign places while McKittrick and his colleagues stayed on to record the biggest, most important story in the history of these islands. Read it and weep. I know I did - and without apology to the cynics and armchair pontificators.

By turning to page 1,186 I could find out what had happened in Ulster 10 years before the peace. In fact, the book reminded me where I'd been: driving hell for leather with a colleague from the Irish Times towards Ardboe in County Tyrone. The call had come in from the police press office. Two men shot dead in a bar on the shores of Lough Neagh. Catholics killed by loyalist extremists. It was cold and windy, and the first thing I saw in the pub was a woman with a bucket of soapy water washing away bloodstains. Warm water and detergent and the blood of Liam Ryan and Michael Devlin. And on that night, if you'd told me or any of the other reporters milling around in the darkness that within a decade we'd be reporting the birth of a powersharing executive that included Sinn Fein, or a parliament that included the political representatives of the murderers and the murdered - I know we'd have put you down as a lunatic.

And 10 years before that, on 3 December in Belfast, William Wright, a prison officer at Crumlin Road Jail, was on his way home after work when the IRA shot him six times in the back. Mr Wright had varied his route to and from work, but it hadn't been enough to save him. And 10 years before that, on 1 December 1, Patrick Corry, a 61-year-old Catholic from West Belfast, was killed by a blow from a police baton during rioting. It was said that he'd tried to intervene on behalf of a student who was being arrested. Patrick Corry was the 21st victim of the Troubles - another 3,579 people were to follow. In my early days in Belfast,working as a reporter for the Irish broadcaster RTE, I remember piles of photographs in the files. They were pictures of victims of violence: policemen, soldiers, civilians. And there was a death list going back to 1969. Names and details overtaken by new names and new details.

You might say that it was a small kind of conflict where it was possible to keep track of the dead in a such a detailed way. The opposite is true; it was a big conflict in a small place. In a place where the sense of family and community (and this is true of both traditions) was so intense, each murder spread sorrow far beyond the police tape that marked the scene of the crime.

On my first weekend on duty for RTE, a call came from the police press office. A part-time UDR soldier had been shot in South Belfast. Joe McIlwaine was working on an employment scheme at a golf club when masked gunmen walked in and shot him dead. I called my colleague Gary Honeyford and asked his advice on how to handle the story. "Just remember that he was a human being; remember he was an individual and not a statistic." After a few months in Ulster that advice became second nature. You remembered the details of every killing, and the funerals. You remembered what the families said, and wondered always when the bloody madness would end. Memory was a form of protection against indifference or acceptance and cynicism. I think of the killing of John O'Neill - murdered by a gang of loyalists who hacked him to death and dumped his body near a stream. I got to know John's father, a gentle man who spends his days painting rural scenes in his council house in Ligoniel, on the mountain above Belfast. He told me that the night after the murder he had gone out into the rain and walked to the place where his son had been murdered. What hurt him most was the idea of his own child, lying there surrounded by men full of hatred. His child, with none of his loved ones to comfort him as he lay dying.

As I leaf through the book, the page falls open at 1,120. I see the name of Gillian Johnston, aged 21, a shop worker murdered by the IRA at her parents' home in the beautiful countryside near Belleek in County Fermanagh. The Provos put 30 bullets into the car where she was sitting with her fiance. A mistake, the leadership admitted later. I was sent down to cover Gillian's funeral at an old stone church close to the border with County Donegal. My lasting memory of that day is of an old man, a farmer who was a relative, standing in the churchyard shaking his grey head as he stared at the ground.

That was 1989, with 10 years' more killing still ahead. The last of the dead listed in Lost Lives is Charles Bennet, murdered by the IRA last July. And now the slaughter is over, and Ulster has its peace and a new government. Read Lost Lives and you will understand the absence of euphoria. The memory of suffering is too fresh.

But because you don't see dancing on the streets, do not for a moment believe that people are not happy. The southern poet Brendan Kennelly wrote that in a life, "every moment accumulates to form a final name". After all those moments of intimate, terrible grief there is at last a name, a word. Peace.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent

Comments