Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

21 October 1999 Edition

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State violence - Families demand the truth


Some people hadn't spoken publicly in over 20 years, others hadn't stopped campaigning for just as long. It was an emotional coming together. Families of the victims of state violence shared their experiences, hopes and fears, even their tears, during a day-long conference organised by Relatives for Justice in Dungannon at the weekend.

The hotel venue was packed to capacity with over 300 representatives, their collective experiences cataloguing all aspects of lethal repression employed by British forces during the last 30 years of conflict. Almost 400 people have been killed by British crown forces, most in disputed circumstances. An untold number of people have been maimed and injured.

A further thousand have been murdered by pro British death squads, many with the direct collusion of British forces. The largest single category of those killed were Catholic civilians. Yet recent official recognition of those who have suffered has largely ignored the experience of the nationalist community.

Despite the opportunity provided by the Peace Process, from the Bloomfield report to the appointment of Adam Ingram as minister for victims, there has been a wilful maginalisation of injury inflicted by the state upon those identified, sometimes arbitrarily, as its enemies.

The thousands of relatives bereaved and the hundreds of people maimed and injured by the state and state-sponsored violence remain the ``Forgotten Victims''. Not only has their suffering been ignored, the circumstances in which it was inflicted have largely been suppressed. ``We can't stop grieving,'' said a relative, ``until we know the truth.''

Personal testimonies

Tony Doherty

Tony Doherty, whose father Patrick was killed on Bloody Sunday, said for many relatives being told the truth would be an act of justice in itself. In 1972, 14 unarmed civilians died after British soldiers opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry.

The current acknowledgement of victims and their suffering arose out the release of prisoners as part of the peace process. As such the focus was largely upon the victims of republican violence.

Almost without exception, the perpetrators of state violence have not been imprisoned, very few have even been charged, the actions of the vast majority were condoned by a state which either sanctioned the violence or turned a blind eye. The relatives of victims of state violence carry the double burden, argued Doherty - the initial loss and the ensuing cover up. They are denied both truth and justice.

Speaking personally, Tony Doherty said he didn't want the British soldier who killed his father to spend one day in jail but he did want a public acknowledgement of the truth about Bloody Sunday - a truth which identified not only those who pulled the triggers, but those who planned it, sanctioned it and condoned it afterwards.

Being told the truth, argued Doherty, was a crucial part of a process of conflict resolution but it wouldn't necessarily meet families' expectations of justice. The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa had left many relatives disillusioned. ``Truth is the first casualty of war,'' said Doherty. ``In the ending of conflict, the establishment of the truth should be the hallmark of the new body politic.''

Sam McLarnon

``And there'll be a lot more fenian bastards dead before the night's out.'' These were the words of an RUC officer after being told a North Belfast man had been shot dead. The dead man was 27-year-old Sammy McLarnon, the year was 1969, and he was murdered by the RUC as he stood at the window of his own front room.

Addressing the conference, Sammy's son, who had been a toddler at the time of his father's murder, described the trauma of that night and the long-term consequences for his family. A young wife, with two small children and carrying a third, Anne never recovered from the death of her husband. ``My mother had a nervous breakdown,'' said her son Sam. ``For the rest of her life she has been on medication.''

The impact on Sam and his two younger sisters was devastating. ``My mother was always afraid,'' said Sam. ``As children we were kept in, my mother didn't like us playing in the street.'' The truth about Sammy McLarnon's killing has never been acknowledged. The autopsy report claimed that he had been killed by a ricochet. ``There were three bullet holes less than three inches apart,'' said Sam. ``The RUC claim that they were returning fire is a total fabrication.'' Days after the killing, the RUC returned to the scene and opened fire, destroying ballistic evidence of the shooting. ``There were 15 men shot in Ardoyne that night,'' said Sam. ``Not one RUC man or loyalist was even injured.''

Laura Brusca

Those who were killed and injured in the Dublin/Monaghan bombings and their relatives are the forgotten victims, said Laura. In 1974, three no-warning bombs exploded in the centre of Dublin and Monaghan, resulting in the single biggest loss of life in the history of the present conflict. While loyalists are believed to have carried out the attack, British Military Intelligence also have been implicated.

``Over 300 people were injured,'' said Laura. For many of the seriously injured, 25 years later the bombing remains a daily reality. ``Bernadette McNally, only 16 years of age at the time of the bombing, and here today,'' said Laura, ``has endured ongoing treatment and had an eye removed only last year.'' Another victim had received repeated operations on shrapnel wounds and recently had a kneecap removed.

Laura's uncle, an Italian citizen, was killed in the bombing. It traumatised the whole family ``in Ireland and Italy'' said Laura. His young widow and her three children returned to Italy, their loss never acknowledged by the state. Recently the family met Irish President Mary McAleese in Rome, a small recognition which, even after all these years, was greatly appreciated, said Laura.

Caoimhe O'Donnell

The O'Donnell family have never been officially informed of the death of their son Barry O'Donnell, his sister Caoimhe told the conference. Barry was one of four IRA Volunteers killed by the British SAS in Tyrone in February 1992. ``580 shots were fired by the British soldiers in the first 15 seconds,'' said Caoimhe. ``There was no return fire.'' It was a classic SAS shoot-to-kill stakeout.

``My family heard the shooting from our home,'' said Caoimhe. ``Later, a family friend came to the house and told us Barry was dead.'' There was no official confirmation. The family could only surmise the death of their son from the build up of military personnel outside their home later that night.

The trauma of losing a family member was compounded by a hostile military presence during the wake and funeral. There has never been an inquest. After the killing, the O'Donnell family were subjected to constant harassment from British crown forces, who taunted family members about the death of Barry.

John Marshall

``They've let us out to be set up,'' were the last words of Lurgan republican Sam Marshall. Moments later, Sam was shot dead by a loyalist death squad. It was March 1990 and Sam and his two companions had just signed bail at the local RUC barracks.

Only a handful of people knew the three men would be at that location at that time on that day. The RUC, the men themselves and their solicitor. Addressing the conference, John Marshall described how, after years of official denials, evidence of crown force collusion in his brother's killing finally came to light.

The death toll due to collusion may never be known. In 1988, British Military Intelligence agent Brian Nelson rearmed loyalist death squads with a shipment of arms from South Africa. In the six years prior to the shipment, loyalists murdered 71 people. In the six years that followed there were 207 sectarian killings.

At the time of the Marshall murder, his two companions, who escaped the shooting, spoke of a red Maestro vehicle, known in the district as ``an army car''. The presence of the surveillance vehicle and that fact that there was no attempt to intervene in the killing immediately suggested collusion.

``When we asked about the red Maestro, we were told by the RUC it had been eliminated from their enquiries,'' said John. No one would admit it belonged to British crown force personnel. It would take over five years and a 3,000-mile trip to the USA to establish this one fact.

During an extradition hearing in America in which John Marshall was appearing as a witness, another witness, RUC Inspector Alan Clegg, admitted the red Maestro was used by the `security forces'. An inquest has never been held into the death of Sam Marshall.

Activist testimony

Clara Reilly of the United Campaign against Plastic Bullets stressed the importance of documentation. In the absence of a policing service, said Reilly, the responsibility fell upon ordinary people to document violence against the nationalist community. Despite being painstaking and the results rarely immediate, proper records can become a powerful weapon to challenge those in power and push reluctant authorities into taking action.

Don Mullan, author of ``Eye Witness: Bloody Sunday'' talked about the power of the ``first sound bite'' and the role of the media in relation to perceptions of incidents of state violence. Relatives of the victims were often left to counteract initial perceptions presented in the media, he said.

Crucial footage during Bloody Sunday was missing, said Mullan.

The media had been allocated a specific spot to stand with their equipment. When the British army went in, the media was the first to be taken out, by a water cannon which drenched journalists and cameras alike. Vital minutes were lost to the media. The only film footage was taken after the shootings, mainly of the dead and injured being brought out.

Jane Winter of British Irish Human Rights Watch outlined the international avenues of redress for the victims of state violence. Many of the restrictions placed on trials and inquests in the North, can't be used in Europe and the UN, said Winter. But many cases may be too old to take to Europe, Winters warned, unless new evidence emerges. International hearings can help to establish the truth but the courts are ``intensely political'' and open to pressure from Britain.

Maggie Beirne of the Committee for the Administration of Justice spoke of the great honour she felt at being with the families ``on a day like today''. Coming together and sharing experiences would re-energise the campaign for justice and recognition for the victims of state violence. Beirne stressed the importance of using evidence gathered to effectively lobby.

Monsignor Raymond Murray, chairperson of Relatives for Justice spoke of human dignity. Commenting on the photographs of those people killed by the state, Murray said here are people with names, families and histories. Truth and justice would be an acknowledgement of their humanity.

Lessons of the Lawrence case

``Welcome home,'' was the message from the hall to guest speakers Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and the family's lawyer, Imran Kahn. The two guest speakers, who had travelled from London to attend the conference, were greeted with a standing ovation from relatives, whose own experience provoked immediate empathy.

Imran Kahn spoke of the trauma and brutality which lay behind the sound bite describing in detail the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who bled to death from fatal stab wounds as he and his companion fled from a gang of white racist youths. The actual details of Stephen's death were not made available to his family, said Imran, they had to wait until the inquest years later.

Criticising the London Metropolitan Police, Imran said their investigation had been incompetent and racist. When the police closed the case, the family's only option was to take a private prosecution. There had never been a private prosecution of a racist murder in English legal history, said Imran. It was only the fourth ever taken for murder. It was a courageous decision but it failed.

Imran recalled a senior police officer who had conducted a second investigation. He knew the flaws of the first investigation but would not criticise fellow officers publicly. Political pressure finally led to a public inquiry. For the first time, said Imran, the authorities admitted something went wrong.

The actions of the London Metropolitan Police were held up to public scrutiny, but the implementation of recommendations has been ``begrudging''. It has been recently revealed that some senior officers have not attended the body set up to advise on race issues, said Imran.

Addressing the audience, Doreen Lawrence described herself as shocked at the sectarian segregation within which people lived. She acknowledged that many of the relatives listening to Imran talking of her son Stephen would be thinking of their own loss. ``I share your loss as you share mine,'' said Doreen.

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