Anniversary shows time is slow healer Ulster legacy needs time he Troubles

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The Independent Online
TODAY IS the anniversary of the death of Samuel McLarnon, who was shot in the head with a police bullet. That was all of 29 years ago but, as a relative of another victim put it, "the bullet just travels on for years through time".

This week the death gave rise to fresh controversy in a way that illustrates how, although the Northern Ireland death rate has fallen dramatically, the legacy of deaths during the Troubles will pose difficult issues for years to come. The question of how to care for the victims, those bereaved by the 3,600 killings of the Troubles, and those injured by the violence, has recently come to the fore after years when the Government and the body politic paid little attention to their needs.

Victims' aid groups have welcomed this trend, but this week the McLarnon case showed how the whole area remains alive with sensitivities, and how a single incident can give rise to hugely different perceptions and reactions. For most people, the idea of victims conjures up those who have suffered at the hands of republican or loyalist terrorism. But the McLarnon case has brought into focus the fact that about 400 of those killed met their deaths at the hands of the security forces. Some were terrorists but many were civilians.

This week's episode began at the Folk and Transport museum just outside Belfast, when a police officer's wife visiting it took exception to a quotation included in a small exhibition. This consisted of photographs and fragments of interviews with children and young people conducted by a group called "The Cost of the Troubles".

The quotation said: "The first thing that happened to me was my father being shot dead when I was two and a half ... I remember the effect on the whole family. He was shot dead in the house by the police."

The woman was upset by this. She did not believe a man had been killed in the way indicated, and made complaints to the museum and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The RUC contacted the museum to pass on her complaint. The museum decided to remove the quotation while its accuracy was checked. Samuel McLarnon, son of the Samuel McLarnon who was killed, was upset by this. It was his quotation.

"I'm disgusted," Mr McLarnon said. "This is censorship; this is the RUC denying involvement. He was an innocent man, he was in the house, and the police shot him. I regard it as murder."

The museum meanwhile checked the circumstances of Mr McLarnon's death, concluded the quotation was accurate enough, and reinstated it to the exhibition.

Although mysteries surround many of the deaths in the Troubles, the McLarnon case was investigated in detail by an English judge. This was Lord Scarman, who was called in by the authorities to investigate the rioting and deaths that led to the first deployment of troops in Belfast 29 years ago today. The McLarnon shooting was one of these.

The Scarman tribunal established that, with a "catastrophic riot" raging in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast, police, backed by an RUC armoured car, opened fire. Lord Scarman concluded shots were fired from one end of Herbert Street at police who, he said, replied with heavy fire.

The late Samuel McLarnon lived with his two children and his pregnant wife at 37 Herbert Street. Three bullets went through his sitting-room window, one of them hitting him in the head. Although a police witness would not accept that the shots were fired by police, Lord Scarman said the evidence was "irresistible" that these were police bullets.

Mr McLarnon's son says he has no memory of the shooting, though his mother told him of "my dad falling to the floor, me standing looking at my dad with blood running down the floor". He says his father was pulling down the window-blind when he was shot. "We got compensation, but it was money you couldn't wait to be rid of anyway."

He is aggrieved about this week's happenings, claiming differentiation is being made between different types of victims. "All the murders by the IRA and loyalists are all acknowledged as being wrong, but they don't mention the security force killings. The security forces are part of the equation but what they did is being overlooked and ignored ... At the end of the day I don't expect any justice, I don't expect any trial; I just want it acknowledged that they've done wrong."

The death of Samuel McLarnon took place in 1969. Many will conclude the police were at fault; many others, better disposed to the authorities, will not hold them to blame for the death. The difference in perspective and interpretation is summed up all too aptly in the title of the exhibition, which is: "Do you see what I see?"

t More than 400 terrorist prisoners in Northern Ireland's jails have applied for early release. The first are expected to walk free within the next few weeks, amid continuing anger over the scheme.