Bloody Sunday anniversary revives memories of Hume, the great peacemaker

During my career as a journalist and broadcaster with RTE News, I worked in Northern Ireland on only about five occasions – but the memories of those brief visits and the bitter nature of the confrontations and the problems in the society that I witnessed still remain as vivid to me today as at the time.

  Those of us who live in the relative peace and calm of the South are often accused of not really understanding the conflict or the reasons for the violence that led to the death of over 3000 people in the ‘six counties’. I actually agree with that claim.

  We were, quite obviously, all literally miles away from the discrimination, the violence, the thuggery and the often cynical nature of politics up there. Sometimes when those who have lived in Belfast and along the border all their lives try to explain what they have had to put up with – that’s Catholic and Protestant alike – it is pretty clear that we just “don’t get it”.

  I’ll give another fairly blatant example of this lack of connection. In my youth, indeed at any time in my first 20 years on this earth, the only time the Northern Troubles personally impacted in any way on our lives in the comfortable surrounds of our cosy little home in the heart of the midlands was when one might have their enjoyment of a BBC Northern Ireland TV programme interrupted of an evening when a RUC Police message came flashing across the screen. Typically, the message would inform viewers that a big explosive device had gone off at a business premises on the Lisburn or Ormeau Avenue road, or nearby in Belfast, and ask business owners of locked up premises’ affected there to immediately come to the scene.

  For 60 seconds or so the ‘Bomb has gone off’ caption flashed across the black and white or colour monitor of the TV in our kitchen. While we may have had some sort of an abbreviated or very harmless chat with our parents about what was going on up North, soon we were back to the TV show we had been watching – and would remain oblivious to the scenes of chaos, panic, death and destruction that were actually underway for the community who lived only about three hours up the road.

  I was trying to explain this distanced and somewhat surreal view of proceedings we undoubtedly hold down here about events in the North to members of my own family after going to see Kenneth Branagh’s film ‘Belfast’ in the cinema. Although hardly the greatest movie to be ever produced on the Troubles, it served as a very powerful reminder in our house of the sort of woeful conditions the young boy and his family featured in the film had to live in as they tried to get on with their lives while stuck in the middle of the Protestant-Catholic divide.

  Branagh’s movie did its best to be apolitical in its nature, concentrating on the human dilemmas facing the children and the adults who were stuck in the middle, not necessarily actively supporting either side in the Troubles. It was the sheer brutality of some of the street riots and the scenes of violence portrayed that actually stunned our two young sons – and brought back to me just some of the feelings of fear and trepidation I experienced myself on my visits to the North for RTE News over the years.

  One of the first historical events I covered in Derry was the first ceasefire on August 31, 1994 when the IRA announced a “complete cessation of military activities”, to be followed 43 days later with a similar ceasefire announcement by the main loyalist paramilitaries.

  This was a truly historic time, one that came about because of some of the unbelievably brave actions of a man called John Hume – without doubt the most decent and hard-working politician who ever stood in office in this island or anywhere abroad – bar none. I met Hume on nine or ten occasions down through the years and had the pleasure of spending a few days in his company at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on another news-related trip.

  In company, he could be quite a dour man to deal with on occasions – often behaving as if, not only the Troubles of Northern Ireland but of the whole bloody world, were weighing down on his shoulders. He was also said by friends to be a bit of a hypochondriac from time to time – fearing the worst for not only the North, but his own health too, while working in Europe in those days. Yet when he spoke about peace and resolving the Troubles in Belfast, he did so with passion and huge energy and determination. You could see in his eyes the conviction to try and sort it out. He was also a political animal and would talk politics from one end of the week to the other – only punctuating it once to bring us on a personal pilgrimage across the border to a German vineyard on one of the ‘down days’ at the parliament. On that journey he became somewhat of a storyteller and performer, and even entertained us with his favourite song – ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. It was a memorable night!

  Derry was a complicated place to grow up in and when we visited for the ceasefire in 1994 it was still a very divided society that we encountered – and a dangerous one too. In those early days of September the IRA may have been on ceasefire and looking forward to resolution, but the loyalist community and its younger members were NOT. My good colleague, the RTE cameraman Seamus Rushe (from Mountbellew), had to turn the car we were travelling in on at least one or two occasions and drive away at breakneck speed from marauding youths who were blocking roads with their bonfires and ejecting innocent passers-by from their vehicles before burning them out. It’s the sort of personal experience you do NOT ever want to take part in – believe me!

  The Bloody Sunday deaths in Derry have always haunted the British authorities and given the Catholics of the city justifiable grounds for the ensuing worldwide outrage. Thousands had gathered innocently on the streets and in the housing areas on that January day for a rally organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. They were merely protesting peacefully against a new law giving the authorities powers to imprison people without trial – internment.

  However, the Protestant-dominated Stormont Government had banned such protests and deployed the British army – a decision that turned out to be probably the worst one ever taken in any day of Northern Ireland’s 100-year history. We know now that at 16:07 GMT on that fateful day it all got out of hand badly when paratroopers inexplicably began to open fire.

  The death toll of 13 victims was shocking. In the 50 years that have followed those extraordinary scenes I think it’s fair to say the pain has got worse instead of better for the families involved. When somebody has lost a loved one in a bereavement they say that time heals, but in this instance the opposite is possibly the case – because of ill-conceived efforts to cover up the shooting dead of innocent people.

  Last Sunday morning I watched with my two young sons as the crowd was making its way to the Bloody Sunday Monument in Rossville Street for the annual memorial service. As we watched, representatives of all the religious faiths spoke about the lessons from Bloody Sunday and the continued focus on moving on and building a new future for the North. Then the place fell silent at the precise moment on January 30, 1972, when members of the Parachute Regiment opened fire in the Bogside. It was such a hugely emotional moment for so many.

  Missing on Sunday was John Hume – that great man who made lasting peace possible in the North. It was hard to believe that he and his wife Pat have both passed on in such a short period, but I know they were remembered too for the part they played, as they undoubtedly will be when the history books are finally written.