Bringing the horror of Ulster’s past into today’s classroom

 

By Patricia Devlin

POINTING at an image of his bandmates on an assembly hall screen, Stephen Travers asks a roomful of school pupils, ‘Can any of you identify the Protestants or the Catholics?’

It was a question no teacher would dare ask, but for the Miami Showband survivor it was part of an important lesson not being taught in today’s classroom – the horror of Ulster’s troubled past.

Some shook their heads, others sat in silence. All remained transfixed on the bass player’s harrowing words.

They heard about the bomb, how it prematurely ripped through the band’s bus before blowing the musicians off their feet.

They were told about the hail of bullets, how four of the band were shot at point blank range

And they learned how, as Stephen lay critically injured, he tried to whisper into the ear of his friend Fran O’Toole, unaware he’d just been shot 22 times in the face.

On Thursday 250 young people at St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena became the first in the province to hear Stephen’s story delivered in a school setting.

Three other men who also lost relatives in merciless attacks during the Troubles also spoke to students and staff about the devastating impact of paramilitary violence on their lives.

Eugene Reavey, who lost three brothers in a loyalist attack in their south Armagh home; Michael Gallagher whose only son Aodhan was killed in the Omagh bomb and Joe Campbell, whose RUC father was gunned down by loyalists, delivered heartbreaking testimonies to children as young as 12.

“You could have heard a pin drop when the stories were being told,” history and politics teacher Denise Johnston, who organised the event, told the Sunday World.

“I think they will take the stories they heard with them throughout their lives and in doing so seek out justice.

“Sometimes we shy away from talking to our young people about our past in an attempt to protect them from the full horror of it, but here in St Louis we believe that they are taught about past in variations,” Denise said.

“As part of our teaching of history and politics we want to give students the tools necessary to make informed decisions in the future.

“Our past is still our present in so many ways. The pupils fully engaged with the event.”

Stephen along with Eugene and the other relatives have been taking the Truth and Reconciliation Platform (TaRP) talks around Ireland for sometime.

But last week’s event was the first school they’d delivered their bomb and bullet legacy to.

Michael Gallagher spoke candidly about the day he lost son Aiden in the Real IRA’s 1998 Omagh bomb attack.

“One wee girl was very emotional,” he said. “In fact she left the hall but I was glad to see her come back again.

“The message certainly I was giving was we don’t want you to go through this pain and suffering, we want you to learn that there is a better way of resolving your disagreements and differences other than shooting and bombing. For me, that was the key message.

“And I do believe it should be part of the curriculum. The educationalists could put together something – that we probably would never totally agree on the narrative –  but yesterday I think listening to people’s person own experiences was absolutely invaluable.”

Stephen Travers, who watched three bandmates be murdered in the 1975 UVF Miami Showband massacre, agreed.

“Truth and Reconciliation Platform succeeds because it personalises the tragedy of violence by presenting a real, live link to the consequences of violence,” he said.

“The young people in Ballymena were able to identify and connect with the brother who lost his brothers, the father who lost his son, the son who lost his father and the friends who lost their friends; TaRP is a living history class.
“I certainly agree with Michael that it should be on the curriculum; for the past ten years, I’ve been inundated with requests to have my book be put on the curriculum and, perhaps, it’s time to seriously consider that.”

Two days after the event, the speakers are still getting inundated with messages of gratitude from the students they spoke to.

One wrote: “We heard things that we wouldn’t be able to read in a textbook or online.”

Another simply said: “They showed us how pointless the Troubles were and the true horror of these conflicts.”

ENDS

 

 

‘I worked on vital negotiations that I believe have changed Ireland forever, and for good’ Martin McGuinness

Martin-McGuinness-007

Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness 1950 – 2017

News broke shortly after 7am today that Martin McGuinness, former IRA leader turned peacemaker, had passed away.

The 66-year-old Irish republican died after a short illness in Derry’s Altnagelvin hospital surrounded by his family. He had a rare genetic disease caused by deposits of abnormal protein – amyloid – in tissues and organs.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Martin McGuinness in 2013, weeks after he announced his decision to step down from his role as MP for Mid-Ulster.

At the time I was working for a local newspaper with a circulation of around seven – maybe even eight – thousand. It really served him very little to speak with me, however he made the time because he said he owed a lot to the people of South Derry and East Tyrone who he emphasised made it possible for him to become Deputy First Minister.

He invited me up to his office in Stormont and even though I had a strict 20 minute time slot, he continually pushed it back and made sure all my questions were answered.

He talked at length about his career, the peace process, Ian Paisley and the Queen, and at that time his hope of maintaining the powersharing government with Peter Robinson.

Unsurprisingly he said being central to the peace process negotiations was the highlight of his political life. And he acknowledged the huge significance his role played in making peace possible in the province.

“I was able to engage and work on vital negotiations that I believe have changed for the better the history of the north of Ireland and the island of Ireland forever and for good.”

Here is the interview in full (published in the Mid Ulster Mail on February 5, 2013).

 By Patricia Devlin

IT is unlikely there will ever be another MP who will enjoy a political career as colourful as that of Martin McGuinness’.

Elected in Mid-Ulster three years after the IRA ceasefire, and a year before the Good Friday Agreement, he has been at the helm of the Northern Ireland peace process for over 15 years.

He has negotiated with British Prime Ministers, gone into government with his most bitter enemy, and shook the hand of the Royal Monarch once considered a prime target for the paramilitary organisation he was Chief of Staff for.

On January 2nd this year, he signed off a letter to Chancellor George Osborne that signalled the end of an era for Mid-Ulster, and his career as MP.

“One of the most interesting elections I have ever fought was the very first election that I stood in, in Mid-Ulster. I have never forgotten it, and I never will,” he told the Mail.

“I remember travelling around every town land and trying to get to every single door, up very long lanes and canvassing to very late at night.

“Quite a percentage thought that the seat wasn’t winnable because it had been tried before, and because there had been narrow losses in the past, in other occasions there were very substantial losses because of the divided vote.

“And I had a real engagement with the people of the constituency, I told them, that I believe there was a change in political situation, that the IRA ceasefire in 1994 had changed the ball game completely, that I also believed there would be a change of government in London, that there would be a new government led by Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam.

“That in my view because we had done work with the Labour party that would represent a real opportunity to get a peace agreement and to the forefront of my mind was to be very, very conscious that all of the people of Mid-Ulster, no matter what their political persuasion or religious beliefs, had suffered from the conflict.

“And I was making a pledge to them that I was determined to bring that conflict to an end and so the people came out in huge numbers and I, against all the odds, won the seat by 1800 votes,” he said.

To Mid-Ulster and beyond

Taking the seat from the DUP’s Willie McCrea was seen as a huge victory for nationalists and republicans in the constituency, so much so that Mr McGuinness’’ election as seen as a catalyst for Sinn Fein sowing it’s roots across the province.

“It was clear to me from speaking to the people of Mid-Ulster that they were very tuned in.

“They were very political and they were very willing to seize the opportunity to make their contribution to the peace process, albeit it being a peace process in it’s very early stages.

“And I think that had a very dramatic impact on the peace process, it certainly had a dramatic impact on constituencies like West Tyrone where Pat Dorrity later emerged as MP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Michelle Gildernew emerged as the MP and Newry and Armagh where Conor Murphy emerged as the MP.

“I give credit to the people of Mid-Ulster for having accomplished that and by voting for me, then made it possible for people in other constituencies to recognise that voting for Sinn Fein could bring change, not just in terms of recognising the constituency but in terms of bringing peace which I believed at that time was a passionate objective of mine, but I also believed that it was passionate desire of the people of Mid-Ulster.”

Highlights

The Deputy First Minister says he is in no doubt at what the highlight of his time in Mid-Ulster has been.

“It has to be the success of the peace process,” he said.

“The peace process is considered as the most successful peace process in the world today and because I was elected by the people of Mid-Ulster as the MP, in 1997, within a month of that I led a Sinn Fein delegation to South Africa with other parties, Peter Robinson led the DUP delegation, David Trimble led the Ulster Unionists and Mark Durkan led the SDLP, where we met with Nelson Mandela and learned many important lessons about peace negotiations.

“I was then obviously entrusted by the party to be the chief negotiator in the Good Friday negotiations and obviously it was because the people of Mid-Ulster put me in such a prominent political position that I was able to engage and work on vital negotiations that I believe have changed for the better the history of the north of Ireland and the island of Ireland forever and for good.”

Ian Paisley

The challenges? The building of those personal, political relationships that have dominated the headlines since the powersharing agreement in 2007.

“Of course the first meeting between Ian Paisley was historically of huge importance, whenever it was certain that he and I were going to be First and Deputy First Minister.

“He said a very significant thing, which gave me an insight into Ian Paisley, he said ‘you know Martin, we can rule ourselves, we don’t need these people coming over from England, telling us what to do,’ and I immediately said to myself, ‘well that’s common ground that you and I can stand on’.

“So for a year I had a very good working relationship with Ian Paisley, albeit he was coming to the end of his time as leader of the DUP and First Minister, and of course people then described us as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, christened that by a member of the Ulster Unionist party who thought it would demean us, in fact people liked it.”

The Queen

One of the most defining moments of those personal relationships happened in June 2012, just weeks after Martin McGuinness outlined his intention to step down from his MP role.

He says even at the height of his powersharing role with Ian Paisley, shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth never entered his mind.

“Back in those days I never contemplated even taking a decision on shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand, but when I did that, I took a very conscious decision to do it as an act of friendship to those who had an allegiance to her In the north of Ireland.

“I think that recognising that things are constantly changing and showing unionists what a United Ireland, or a reunified Ireland would look like I think it is important that we continue to make gestures that make people feel comfortable that moving forward in a shared way, particularly trying to develop an all island economy, is making economic sense for us both north and south.”

The future

Although standing down from Mid-Ulster as an MP, the Deputy First Minister says he will not be standing down from the constituency.

“Some people had that false impression,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I will be as proud and honoured to continue on as a humble MLA for Mid-Ulster and as Deputy First Minister because I am very committed to the constituency and very committed to the people of South Derry and East Tyrone who have supported me through thick and thin over the course of the last 15 years.

“I have a great affinity with the people of South Derry and East Tyrone and I am very conscious that I would not be Deputy First Minister or even as many people describe it, joint First Minister, on the basis of equality with Peter Robinson, had it not been for the support I received from Mid-Ulster.”