Monday, 19 October 2015

Will we finally set Barabbas free?

Last week marked the 21st Anniversary of the Ceasefire declared by the Combined Loyalist Military Command.  It was heralded as an end to decades of Loyalist violence.  Earlier that year I met a handful of their colleagues who entered my home one evening and proceeded to empty the contents of a sub-machine gun into my body: all because I was a defenceless ‘innocent’ Taig.  I emphasise the word innocent because that was the point: the more innocent and defenceless the better; Loyalism wanted to instil fear and terror into my community.  This left me paralysed from the waist down: a cripple; burning with pain; plagued with illness.

I got my apology from Gusty Spence that crisp October day: abject and true remorse.  I can’t remember if I accepted it at the time but, in a way, in later years, I did.  I say in a way because it was not an apology from the individuals who were in my home but from the Loyalism as a collective.  I accepted it because I had to make peace with myself in order to make peace with those who harmed me. 

I wanted peace.  That is why I and the majority voted ‘Yes’ in the Referendum.  On Good Friday 1998 we agreed to set Barabbas free; all of the prisoners would be released from the H-Blocks.  This still sticks in the craw of some people but I believe it was a necessary concession to help cement the peace process.  Paramilitary organisations would do well to reflect on the magnanimity of this gesture by the public at large.

There was a relative peace between the traditional enemies after Good Friday but the men of war continued to wreak havoc on their own communities.  They found it difficult to give up their Brigadier status and lifestyle.  Demobilisation and disbandment was not on the radar.  The weapons of choice were intimidation, extortion, drug peddling, knee-capping and murder.  The working class communities against whom they waged their war never stood a chance against such muscle-men.

The Ceasefire Generation is now twenty-one: will they get the key to the door?  A key to open the door of the cage: a cage which houses the hawk, which can only whistle to the tune of ‘The Billy Boys’, or to release the doves of peace.  That is the test for the new Loyalist Community Council.  Have they called a new ceasefire, ended their war and will they display abject and true remorse to their community?  Will they finally demobilise and disband?  Will they be able to reintegrate this time?

They are going to need help to reintegrate.  They are going to need the communities that they intimidated to show some magnanimity.  They need to give something back to these communities.  They shouldn’t expect to retain their status by virtue of their hard-man past but instead need to earn the respect of their people.  Any funding opportunities coming into these communities should not be sewn up as ‘Jobs for the Boys’ but should instead be used to create jobs for the boys: the boys of the Shankill, Ballybeen and beyond.  Disband the Young Citizen Volunteers and replace them with young citizen volunteers who will work for the betterment of their community.

If the jackboot is finally lifted from the throats of Loyalist working class communities the people themselves need to begin to reclaim a stake in this society; they need to find their voice.  They are only disenfranchised by virtue of their own apathy.  They need to use the only legitimate weapon they have: the vote.  They need to come out and vote for people who have their loyalist working class interests at heart.  They need to waken up and realise that Big House Unionism couldn’t care less about the Two-up/Two-down loyalists in the Village.  They need to find new Dawns; to elect more Julie-Annes over the Jolenes; and to forget about the Humphrey-Dumptys of this world.  To maybe look at those who would put People Before Profit.  Don’t just use your vote to keep ‘themmuns’ out but instead get ‘yousens’ in.

I hope that the loyalist working class begin to realise their core identity: their innate humanity.  Strip it all away and that’s all we have.  Stop worrying about whether the big dome is adorned with a perpetual flag or the Northern Ireland football shirt can hang from the big wheel at Funderland.  Stop listening to the dog whistle politics that has led so many onto the streets, filling the jails and cemeteries.

I call on all paramilitaries to be more sensitive when honouring their fallen.  To take a moment to reflect on their victims as they observe a minutes silence every Easter or Remembrance Sunday.  When they reminisce about the heroic operations carried out by their brave volunteers don’t forget to include the stories about their attacks on defenceless people like me and the operations I went through to fix my body (the latest one was only last week!).

It is time for the Loyalist Community Council to prove the doubters and the cynics wrong.  I stand beside those who welcomed this new initiative on the airwaves last week.  People like Jude Whyte, John Allen and Mark Rodgers: people who were so badly affected by loyalist violence.  It’s time to reintegrate and we as a society need to let them.  We need to put aside the labelling.  We need to let the ‘perpetrators’, the ‘victim-makers’ and the ‘terrorists’ re-join society.  We need to let them apply for all jobs on an equal basis whether that be as a landscape gardener or a SPAD in Stormont.  We agreed to set Barabbas free in 1998 but yet they are still fettered in 2015.  We need to and we should give you another chance.  Please don’t blow it again.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Stormont: a theatre of bitter disappointments

In one instant in January 1994 my life was changed forever.  Up until that moment I had lived relatively unscathed by the violence that had consumed our society for centuries.   Many before me were not so lucky: now my time had come to join them.  UFF gunmen entered my family home in the expectation of assassinating my next door neighbours: tired of waiting they decided that I would do just fine.  ‘Yabba dabba doo, any taig will do’.  I woke up two days later.  The volley of shots had ripped my body apart.  I was going to have to get used to the disappointment that my new wheelchair could not take me to places where I could previously go without a moment’s thought. 

Disappointment changed to hope.  My crippled body was not going to paralyse my mind or my spirit.  It was the same outside.  There was a new hope of peace; a hope for change.  A new hope that the politics of dialogue and cooperation would fill the crippling political void.  A hope that our politicians would be able to represent us, to hear us, to work for us.  Where is that hope now?

The current situation at Stormont is just another example of the long history of disappointments that the inhabitants of this part of the world have had to endure.  Has it ever delivered anything for the ordinary Joe since it was first built in the 1930s?  The building itself is now just a glorified vaudeville theatre which plays host to a perpetual hokey-cokey pantomime.  One party rule, nationalist abstentions, discrimination, internment, Sunningdale, ‘Workers’ strikes, shutdown, Good Friday, Stormontgate, decommissioning, letters from America and vengeful bloodlust are all part of the in/out saga.

The shaky foundations upon which Stormont was first built are now held up with ugly scaffolding.  The edifice is crumbling.  The leaking roof needed fixing.  In-house saboteurs are throwing spanners in the works; some are downing tools; whilst apprentices jump up and down and throw their toys out of the pram.  The interim stand in First Minister cum purse holder guards against rogue renegades whilst the boss calls a wildcat strike.

We are told that there will be no more business as usual: that is, unless that business involves the ‘business’ of the DUP.  The full contingent of the DUP clocked in on time last month to discuss ‘business’ matters at the Committee for Finance and Personnel.  They couldn’t possibly throw a sickie that morning; the boss would be watching closely on CCTV.  Business as usual that day.

The petty stuff can wait we are told.  Petty stuff like legislating.  Legislation that will mean something to the ordinary Joe.  One example would be the long awaited Private Members Bill that would enable people who were seriously and permanently injured during the troubles to receive reparations in recognition of their suffering and ongoing hardship.  We are told that the DUP Bill is all ready to go but alas we must wait until the shop steward of the Unionist Union of Democratic Party Workers gives the nod and lifts the farcical and absurd work to rule strategy that has brought about this Autumn of Discontent.  This Workers Union will fight long and hard to secure their pay rises and pensions but the rest of us can wait.  “We need to look after the Union first and foremost” is the campaign slogan.

Time runs out for people like me.  I would qualify for the proposed Special Pension as would hundreds of other ordinary Joes who got caught up in the violence which filled previous political vacuums.  As a member of the WAVE Injured Group which lobbied the MLAs at Stormont for the past four years to bring this proposal to the fore there is a sense that the pension will disappear into the current political vacuum.  The Bill needs to hit the floor of the assembly now or it will not pass in time.  Time that many of the injured don’t have.  ‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting’.  This ageing population of blinded, paralysed, limbless cripples can no longer wait on this macabre pantomime to come back from this lengthy intermission.  We need to see all of the actors back on stage, reading from the same script and singing the same song: a song that we ordinary Joes can understand, ‘We can work it out’.