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Northern Ireland victims' families feel justice further away than ever

Published Apr 05, 2023 08:05 Updated Apr 05, 2023 17:22
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4/4 © Reuters. Andrea Brown, daughter of Royal Ulster Constabulary officer Eric Brown who was killed in 1983, holds a portrait of her father in Moira, Northern Ireland, March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Aiden Nulty 2/4
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By Amanda Ferguson and Aiden Nulty

BELFAST (Reuters) - The Good Friday Agreement largely ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland, but for many relatives of the more than 3,600 people killed the peace accord has offered little closure over the past 25 years.

In a short section, the deal said it was essential to address the suffering of victims as a necessary element of reconciliation.

The patchwork of measures that followed have failed in that ambition, according to families of those who died at the hands of nationalist militants seeking Irish unity, the British army or pro-British unionist militants wanting to stay in the United Kingdom.

Proposed British government legislation to introduce an amnesty to former soldiers and individuals involved in the conflict has left those still grieving fearful that any lingering hope of finding justice or truth will be lost forever.

"Every time you seem to get knocked down again and again, disregarded almost like a byproduct of the Good Friday Agreement," said Andrea Brown on how she and others who lost loved ones feel the peace process has treated them.

"It's very, very difficult to live knowing that my whole life changed with one bullet and the people who did that will never be brought to justice," Brown, from Moira, said, referring to the murder in 1983 by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of her father, Eric, a police officer.

Brown was injured five years later in an IRA bomb that claimed the lives of six soldiers and now uses a wheelchair. She says she prays that the British government will drop its amnesty plans.

Britain argues that prosecutions linked to the events of up to 55 years ago are increasingly unlikely to lead to convictions and that the legislation, being debated by lawmakers, is needed to draw a line under the conflict.

While some trials have collapsed in recent years, the first former British soldier to be convicted of an offence since the peace deal was given a suspended sentence in February for the manslaughter of a Catholic man shot dead in 1988.

Other inquiries and court cases are proceeding.

The United Kingdom's plans would override a 2014 agreement that foresaw continued investigations. The bill is opposed by all Northern Ireland political parties, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Irish government and victims' groups.

"It toys with what is a very delicate peace settlement here," said Amnesty International Northern Ireland deputy director Grainne Teggart. "It will also set a very dangerous precedent internationally."


For Alan McBride, project manager at the WAVE Trauma Centre, the largest cross community group for those affected by the "Troubles", it highlights the fact that "reconciliation is what has been badly lacking" in the last 25 years.

The battle is taking so long, it is now being fought by grandchildren who never met the grandparent whose death they want answered, McBride has found.

"Some people want truth, some people want justice, some just want acknowledgment, some financial restitution and some want a memorial. What we need is something that can allow all these things to happen in society," he said

McBride's wife Sharon and his father-in-law were among nine civilians killed by an IRA bomb in a fish shop on Belfast's Shankill Road five years before the peace deal was signed.

Looking at old pictures of his wife and young daughter Zoe, now around the same age Sharon was when she was killed, McBride recalls how the debris-strewn street was "just like a scene from hell."

He also remembers his wife's "amazing" smile and "dazzling" blue eyes that "sing as they're talking to you".

Eugene Reavey still tears up thinking about the loss of his brothers – John Martin, Brian and Anthony. All three were shot by a loyalist gang in their home in the small County Armagh village of Whitecross in 1976.

The eldest, John Martin, was shot 40 times and left "like a rag doll," his brother recalls. In 2019 a Northern Ireland court ordered an independent investigation into alleged collusion between security services and the gang suspected of the killing.

"It absolutely changes you. You don't trust anybody after that," said Reavey, now in his 70s.

Like Reavey, Cathy McIlvenny fears decades of campaigning will be wasted if an amnesty is introduced. Nobody has been held accountable for the 1987 rape and murder of her sister, Lorraine McCausland, who was last seen at a bar run by loyalist militants.

Lorraine's son, Craig, was shot dead by another loyalist group 18 years later.

"I think this is what the government wants, that families will die off. My father has died but my daughter will take it up after me. We feel we owe that to each other," said McIlvenny.

(This story has been refiled to fix 'then' to 'than' in headline)

Northern Ireland victims' families feel justice further away than ever

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