Seamus Heaney’s seminal poem The Cure at Troy is often quoted by political leaders, most recently by Joe Biden during his campaign for the White House. It’s a poem about the trauma of conflict and division, the hope for reconciliation and a shared future; themes neatly aligned with the narrative of a US president trying to bring a nation together again.
But Heaney’s context is the place he called home. Northern Ireland, where the 30-year Troubles divided communities along green and orange lines. A place marked by violent conflict, where hope was seldom on the horizon. I am a relative of one of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre in August 1971, one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Father Hugh Mullan was a Catholic priest killed unlawfully by the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, as he went to help another victim and administer the last rites. He was shot once in the abdomen, and again in the back as he lay on the ground.
Last week I spent time in County Down with Hugh’s brother Patsy and his niece Geraldine. In the face of unimaginable trauma, they have led a campaign for justice with immense courage and dignity. They have never been motivated by revenge or retribution, but by their love for Hugh and a determination to secure truth and justice.
Twenty-five years since the Troubles, Northern Ireland has been transformed by the Good Friday agreement. But much of the agreement and its successor versions have still not been implemented. We have not seen progress in dealing with the past, or what is commonly referred to as “legacy issues”. In the Queen’s speech this week, the government announced a new Northern Ireland Troubles bill. We don’t know the full details yet, but it will probably include proposals for some form of amnesty relating to crimes committed during the conflict.
The government seems to have shelved an unconditional amnesty to end all Troubles prosecutions, a controversial proposal that would have effectively amounted to impunity for those involved in serious violations. But an amnesty may still be included in the new bill, on the condition that perpetrators work with a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. An official note accompanying the Queen’s speech said this will “give victims and their families the answers they have sought for years”.
Yet victims and their families have not been consulted on these proposals, and every major Troubles-related victims group, including the cross-community Wave Trauma Centre in Belfast, have opposed all previous iterations of amnesty proposals, arguing that they fail to consider the rights of victims. I listened to Conservative MP Fay Jones’s response to the Queens speech in the House of Commons. She welcomed the bill, but I noted the words “victims”, “survivors” and “families” were not mentioned once. This didn’t sound like a government committed to reconciliation and finding a way forward for everyone.
The day after the Queen’s speech marked the one-year anniversary of a landmark inquest at Belfast crown court in relation to the Ballymurphy massacre. In her ruling, Belfast coroner Mrs Justice Keegan found that all victims were “entirely innocent”. It has taken 50 years for these words to appear on public record.
What is often missed in discussions of Troubles-related cases, is how the grief of so many victims’ families was compounded by what followed. In the aftermath of Hugh Mullan’s death, there were reports in newspapers that attempted to smear him and our family, including claims that he had been a gunrunner. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. Hugh was a kind man dedicated to the community he served. He would have given everything he had to anyone in need. When he died, he had only £12 in his bank account.
That’s why establishing the truth is such an important part of this process, and why everyone must be heard. The pain families feel does not come with an arbitrary end date, and nor can their right to equality before the law. The weeks and months ahead matter. They matter to the Ballymurphy families, to all victims’ families and to relationships across these islands. The government must understand that reconciliation cannot be imposed via legislation in Westminster. The only way forward on these issues is to work on the principles of cooperation, equality and respect for all.
It will not be easy, but the greatest political advances rarely are. If we can deal with the past – and I believe it is within our gift to do so – we will move closer to the prize of reconciliation and a shared future. To Heaney’s farther shore, where hope and history rhyme.