The pipes and drums fade away to leave only Protestant anger and bitterness

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AFTER THE playing of the pipes and the ear-splitting crack of the drums, the triumphalism faded away and you could have heard a pin drop.

A young woman reduced almost 3,000 people to a pained silence as she described the day her mother and father were killed by an IRA bomb. Since last Thursday, Michelle Williamson, 32, had been at the head of the Long March, a "civil rights" procession from Londonderry to Portadown intended to highlight the plight of the Protestant victims of sectarian violence.

Now Ms Williamson was at a rally in Antrim as, with a faltering voice, she apologised for her inexperience at public speaking and, more eloquently than any politician at Stormont, proceeded to sum up the reality of terrorism.

"On a sunny Saturday morning on 23 October 1993, my mum and dad decided to go shopping in Belfast," she said. "Their intention was simply to buy new curtains for the new home they had moved into the day before.

"At about 2pm I saw a newsflash on the TV which told of an explosion on the Shankill Road. I remember thinking, `I hope they didn't get caught up in it'."

Ms Williamson went on to describe how her mother, Gillian, 47, and father, George, 63, had been caught in a chip shop blast in which nine people died. She told of seeing her father's body, his head bandaged and bloody, in hospital, and of how no one could tell her where her mother was until hours later, when her body was found in a local mortuary.

"She had been alone there all day," said Ms Williamson. "To my dying day I will not forget my daddy lying there with bandages on his head and blood seeping on to the sheets."

Then she told how Sean Kelly, one of the two bombers who killed her parents, was due to be released next year and of how, she claimed, he was being given a share of pounds 76,000 in compensation for damage caused to his possessions when his Maze prison cell was searched to prevent an escape.

She reminded the crowd of how the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, had carried the coffin of Thomas Begley, the other bomber, who died in the blast. And the temperature in the crowd rose.

In essence, this is what the Long March is about: the anger and helplessness felt by Protestant victims as the Catholic perpetrators of terrorism are freed without the surrender of a single weapon. Late on Tuesday, its 100 hardcore marchers reached Antrim, completing about 60 of the 120 miles that will take them to Drumcree by Saturday.

Marching the last two miles with them into town, one was struck by the procession's peaceful nature. There was no Orange Order regalia, no pipes, no drums and only one banner proclaiming civil rights for the victims of violence.

"Although we don't recognise the Parades Commission, we have complied with their conditions and have only one civil rights banner and no pipes or drums," said Norman Boyd, a Unionist Assembly member for South Antrim.

"This is not meant to be political. It is a march aimed at bringing to the attention of this Government the fact that there are real victims of violence whose views are being ignored in the so-called peace process."

As the parade approached the outskirts of Antrim, however, any doubt that it was fast becoming a focus for Orange Order sentiment melted away. Orangemen in full regalia, their pipe bands marching ahead of them, joined the procession.

Angry Protestants, disillusioned with the failure of republicans to decommission their weapons, lined the streets to cheer and clap.

The Long March swelled to hundreds and then thousands, turning into a parade in which the victims became the standard, the cause around which the Protestant community felt it could rally.

Earlier in the day, many had heard Peter Gibson describe how paramilitaries had shot dead his father, John, as he returned home from work in 1993.

His crime was to have been a director of Henry Brothers, a firm of contractors that had done work for the security services. Mr Gibson spoke with disgust of the only person to be convicted of the murder, a man who is to be freed next year.

"My father was one of many innocent victims," he said. "He had no interest in politics, hatred or bigotry. But now the man who did, who murdered him, is to get out next year.

"The man lives about five miles from my house. I'd say there is a great likelihood I will bump into him sooner or later. Am I supposed to sit back, shake his hands and say there is peace? I can't accept that."

At the head of the procession was the Rev John Armstrong, minister for the Antrim Free Presbyterian Church. Asked whether the march would have had more credibility if victims of both sides had stood side by side, he replied: "The invitation for innocent victims to join us has gone out to everyone.

"Of course, if Catholic victims feel they do not want to join in, that is their choice."

It seemed a hollow offer as Paul Berry, the youngest member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the new darling of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, spoke to the crowd of republican attempts to "ethnically cleanse" the Protestant community.

"I say to Gerry Adams," he shouted, "that the only good IRA man is a dead IRA man."

Les Pickering, 35, had walked all the way from Londonderry, most of it with his three-year-old son, Daniel, who had taken the day off from walking yesterday.

Mr Pickering summed up the feeling: "We believe that the Labour Government is now supporting the republicans. Well, we are telling them that we have taken republican terrorism for 30 years and we won't take any more.

"I'm bringing up my son not to hate, but to know the truth. I ask him, `Are you a Fenian?' And he replies, `No! I'm a Protestant'."

By the weekend, when Orangemen descend on Drumcree, angry that their march down the Garvaghy Road has been banned by the Parades Commission, the Long March may have taken on great significance, providing a magnetic focus for many thousands of Protestants.

Like the people of Antrim, they will witness the dignity and pain of Michelle Williamson. Last December, when she found out that Sean Kelly would be released early from prison, she sent a letter to the bomber and chained herself to railings at the Maze.

The letter told Kelly how he had ruined her life, how she could never forgive him and how she hoped she could haunt him for ever.

Angry that he was to be given leave to be with his family over Christmas, she said she hoped he would choke on the beer he would be drinking with his friends.

Rather than have Kelly face his accuser, prison guards took him out of another exit and sent him off to enjoy his holiday.