‘Sectarianism is not a flower that grows wild in the field, you can’t just go out there and uproot it, you’d have to go round all the window boxes, you might even find a few potted plants in the drawing room,’ said David Ervine. In other words, sectarianism is a thing inherited as much as any other family trinket.
The seeds of sectarianism may be sown by an act of violence committed against a person, but it can just as likely be watered and pruned by them after the fact.
Ervine’s words were brought back to the forefront of my mind a few weeks ago when I took down Northern Protestants by Susan McKay. Being twenty years old, the book is somewhat dated but interesting and worthy nonetheless. The chapter ‘Borderlands’ begins with an interview with Margaret Frazer and, later, with her son Willie.
It seemed a kind of morbid design that not long after coming across these interviews, news came of Willie Frazer’s death. Much like with Paisley and McGuinness, comments online prompted discussions on the proper way to behave in such circumstances. It is only right by membership of the human race that it be recognised that once again cancer has fed its gluttonous appetite with another life, and that there is a family left wanting in the famine that it has left behind.
But grief is not of the past, but for the futures which never were. Whatever we thought of a person during their life should not be drastically modified by their death.
The recall of both Margaret and Willie Frazer echo Heaney when he wrote of the ‘eructations of Orange drums, allergic equally to Pearse and Pope,’ as well as the ‘bangs that shake all hearts and windows day and night.’
It is without doubt that their family suffered more than any one family rightly should. A Protestant family from Whitecross, not far from where my grandmother was born in Lislea, though she came from a strong republican background.
In the eye of my childhood there were always signs and slogans hanging from the lampposts and painted on the walls, but these were washed to insignificance by the stark beauty of the surrounding area. The history of the last thirty years seemed less than that which went back to Cu Chullain. Also, the roadsign silhouette of the gunman was less daunting than the three dimensional tower on the hill. But then again, the only danger I saw then was in whatever ghouls were lurking in the trees. The Frazers’ fear was better rooted in reality.
Yet in the manner in which Frazer talked it can be seen how victimhood becomes mythologised by those who are made to suffer and survive it. Not only were the memories of their loved ones and their neighbours on their minds, but the atrocities had been turned around and round in Chinese whispers to the extent that much partial fiction came to be relayed as firm fact.
Segregation can be a dialogical pursuit. Not only has one heard the enemy at the castle gate but has responded by barricading oneself into the room in response. The result being that not one can get out, as well as in.
This is why the twin solutions to the lingering shadows of legacy are truth and reconciliation. The word ‘justice’ is often a bit of a misnomer, in the sense of retribution, when what really matters to the people left behind is recognition. A simple who, what, when, why, and how. That’s what Gerry Conlon spent much of his life fighting for, and what the McGurk family are fighting for today.
As Anne Cadwallader, journalist and author of Lethal Allies, speaking at An Cuan in Rostrevor a couple of months ago, said, the policy on the British government in regards to truth is a three stage plan of ‘deny, delay, and death.’ The McGurk family are currently in their second generation of campaigning for truth, and the files they’re looking for are not due to be released for another forty years. During the Christmas holiday two years ago the Foreign Office announced that it had ‘lost’ a number of files relating to the Troubles.
At a different event held in An Cuan last year, Alan McBride contrasted two events. Firstly, a letter which Gerry Adams had sent him, in response to many of his own. Adams acknowledged that the murder of McBride’s wife was wrong and terrible, but…
Second, was an encounter with a former IRA man in a bar in Edinburgh, after the two of them had finished filming for a television programme. As the evening progressed and alcohol washed away any tension, the fellow put his hand on McBride’s and said that it was terrible what happened to McBride’s wife. Recognition offered without clause or obfuscation meant that a connection was established and a dialogue able to be formed.
There is no question that it was right for Frazer to memorialise and to remember, but it also important to be aware and sometimes necessary to be reminded that there is a world far and away beyond our own front door.
In 2003, Kris Kristofferson introduced his song 'The Circle' which was written for Layla Al-Attar, an Iraqi painter who was killed during a missile attack on an intelligence building behind her house, one of the first acts of the Clinton administration. According to her son’s testimony, two of the missiles misfired and hit her house instead. Kristofferson introduced the song by saying ‘we ought to know the names of our victims.’
We should know the names of our victims as well as our martyrs.