Commemorating Our Troubles

Recently we have covered the fifth anniversary of the worst atrocity of our Troubles. The relatives of the victims, who have formed their own committee, have said it will be the last memorial service formally convened in the town.

Recently we have covered the fifth anniversary of the worst atrocity of our Troubles; the Omagh bombing (for more, see Omagh Bombing Kills 28). The relatives of the victims, who have formed their own committee, have said it will be the last memorial service formally convened in the town. Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena died in the atrocity, said he was glad it was the final official commemoration. He told reporters that the attack "seemed like yesterday."

He added: “The years seem to roll by but it just seems like days rather than years. It gets no easier.” A father speaking of his teenage son’s death said: “The bullets that killed James didn’t just travel in distance, they traveled in time. Some of those bullets never stop traveling.” I think that’s something that’s very easy for journalists to forget.

We tend to be focused on the “big” anniversary and if that concentration excludes people and the validity of everything they have to say or are feeling then that can be a problem. This was brought home powerfully to me a couple of years ago when I made a series on the Belfast Blitz.

Hundreds of people died in the city in 1941 — no one thought the Luftwaffe could make it this far and therefore air defenses were negligible and consequently the death toll, per head of population, was one of the highest in the aerial bombing of any European city. I interviewed guys who had been there. We even interviewed one of the few surviving Luftwaffe pilots. There is something about the distance in time — maybe too all the old war movies we’ve grown up with — that somehow makes a lot of us think these people had experienced their pain and had dealt with it. How misplaced that notion was, was brought home in the very first interview when I noticed the subject’s eyes glaze as he suddenly saw again the horrors of fifty years earlier. It was a very present memory, not an anniversary.

Penny is absolutely right when she says the second anniversaries are more difficult to cover (See Penny Owen's Second Anniversaries are Different). Here, we have tended — after the first few years — to be able to count only in fives. That’s not as a result of any formal decision by anyone. It’s just the way it’s developed. I wish it had been better thought out but now that's also just the way it is.

Were I to be honest I think that in turn can develop into a problem that’s more difficult to address. The fives are used to mark only the major events and atrocities — at Omagh 29 people died, 14 as a result of Bloody Sunday, 15 in the McGurk’s Bar explosion and so on. In all of those cases there have been books of condolence, annual memorials sometimes attended by Prime Ministers and Presidents and support groups. But in a conflict like ours there were so many individuals killed by booby traps, in drive-bys and simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The concentration on those big events must be very difficult for those who lost loved ones in circumstances where only one or two died. No one, except them, marks those anniversaries and I often feel they are left tremendously isolate. I could see that situation easily develop in the States with the relatives of individual servicemen and women killed in Iraq.

When it comes to Sept. 11, I’ve got to feel that there must be many more emergency workers, people who experienced events first hand and relatives who want to speak. Those who may not have wanted to talk to a reporter last year may now feel differently. For many years a lot of the news organizations here have had an informal policy only to approach the relative of a victim via a clergyman, support group, civic representative or some other third party. On the whole, with some notable exceptions, that has worked well.

One thing, in television news here as in print we have always tried to run the views of victims’ relatives at length when it comes to the anniversary of a major incident. It is not unusual to find three and four minute television pieces and two or even three page spreads given to an interview with one relative. There is a recognition that because it may have required a real watershed effort on their part simply to talk to a reporter that we in turn must fulfill our part of the bargain by running as much of what they say as possible. Among journalists there is a tremendously protective attitude on the whole towards victims relatives.

Like, I suspect, most journalists I do feel very uncomfortable with the coverage of anniversaries. It’s one of those times when you feel like a vulture. But of course, in an event like Sept. 11 — or on our local scale Omagh or Bloody Sunday — there is real public interest in the best sense of that phrase. The continuing focus on Omagh has enabled the families to raise the money to bring court actions against those they accuse of being behind the bombing — individuals who were identified in the first place through a BBC investigative program. There is now also a government inquiry sitting into Bloody Sunday. It has so far cost around £150 million. One of my best friends, a journalist, is John McGurk. He was dragged from the rubble of his father’s bar where a loyalist bomb had exploded. Included in the 15 who died were his mother, sister, uncle and school friend. John has told me that for many years — until those behind the attack were convicted — the frustrating thing was the fact that newspapers continued to perpetuate the lie that the bomb was being made in the bar when it exploded prematurely. The more the truth was published regarding what had happened, the happier were he and his family. Marking anniversaries can be positive or negative.

Finally, one other feature I’ve noticed here perhaps due to the longevity of the conflict has been encounters between perpetrators and victims which have been engineered in some cases by the media. Obviously, these required complex negotiation and consideration but on the whole the programs and articles produced have proved memorable and — I’d have to say — uplifting. How the individuals concerned have reacted in the aftermath I’m not sure since I have no firsthand experience.

Incidentally, when it came to the first anniversary of the Omagh bomb some reporters deliberately timed their vacations so as not to be around. I know because, between ourselves, I was one of them. Maybe it was the cowardly way out but I just didn’t want to face a lot of the material and anguish. If it has that impact on us what must it be like for relatives?