Behind every seat at the peace table stands a ghost

Both sides bring grief and hate to the Ulster talks, writes David McKittrick. Now they must try to put it all aside
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Cormac McCabe was a Co Tyrone headmaster and friend of Unionist MP Ken Maginnis. Both men also served as part-time members of the Ulster Defence Regiment. One day in 1974, as Mr McCabe was dining in a hotel with his wife and physically handicapped daughter, IRA gunmen took him away and shot him dead.

Now at Stormont in Belfast, Mr Maginnis is at the negotiating table along with Sinn Fein, whom he bluntly describes as "unreconstructed terrorists", in full-scale peace talks aimed at working out a better future for Northern Ireland.

Quite a few of those at the table can recall friends, colleagues and relatives killed in the Troubles; they can also glance round and see people whom they hold responsible for deaths. Dealing with this proximity can be difficult, but for how long can you sustain hatred of people with whom you have to day-to-day contact?

Mr Maginnis recalled: "I have a deep, deep bitterness about the IRA. I think I have lost almost all my closest friends in the UDR. I don't see my presence at Stormont as staying in the talks with Sinn Fein, but rather as refusing to give up political ground. It's not a question of spite, it's a question of disgust. I could never give cognisance to them, not as long as I live."

Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, suffered even more directly at the hands of the IRA: 10 years ago his father, John McMichael, was killed by republicans. Gary, who was 18 at the time, said yesterday: "It's very, very difficult for me, because they not only killed my father but also my best friend, and three years ago they tried to kill me.

"That obviously makes it more difficult to even be in the room with representatives of those people, never mind engage in any form of negotiation with them. But it's actually that suffering that makes us take the line that we do, and makes us go that extra mile to actually try and remove the threat against the community for ever. We know that if we walk away from this process there's going to be another stage of conflict, that others will have to go through what we've gone through."

One of the features of Northern Ireland conflict, however, is that victims often have their own victims. John McMichael was a leader of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, which killed more than 400 people. Gary McMichael's party represents the UDA at the table.

One of those killed by the UDA was Paddy Wilson, an SDLP politician who died in 1973, the victim of a frenzied knife attack in which he was stabbed 32 times. The man who killed him, John White, was jailed for life. But he has been released and, as one of the UDA's political representatives, now sits in the talks right next to the SDLP. Among the loyalists present, in fact, are four men who have served life terms for killing a total of seven people.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, which sits on the other side of the SDLP, bears the brunt of loyalist and Unionist condemnation of republican violence. Yet the party has itself been on the receiving end of violence, at least 18 members or relatives of members being killed during the early 1990s.

One of its talks delegates, Alex Maskey, was a favourite target for loyalists. In 1986 the UDA shot him. "I got a sawn-off shotgun blast in the stomach. I lost half a kidney, half my bowel, half my stomach and I still have shrapnel inside me," he said yesterday. "I also had my house petrol-bombed by loyalists - I had to drag my kids out of bed and down a burning hallway. That was very traumatic for them."

Four years ago he and a friend, Alan Lundy, were building a new security porch on his home when loyalists arrived again. UDA gunmen pursued Mr Lundy through the house and shot him dead in front of Mr Maskey's two teenage sons.

Mr Maskey said: "All too often people talk as if only one side has a monopoly on suffering. I'm here trying to reach out to people associated with organisations who spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to assassinate me. I'm trying to get on with people who tried to murder me, and that's because I want to make sure others don't have to endure the suffering that we have."

Many of those in Stormont have thus brought personal as well as political grievances with them, yet progress will depend on trust developing between old arch-enemies. If the talks are to be successful, the hope is they will not only bring about political change but also make a start on laying so many troubled spirits to rest.