Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bloody Friday In Belfast - Death On A Summer Afternoon

Bloody Friday, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ulster Troubles

Within the annals of  Irish history the apogee of the Provisional IRA's attempt to transplant urban guerrilla warfare from sizzling Latin America to drizzly Northern Ireland took place on the afternoon of  Friday 23rd July 1972 in Belfast City.

In a period of less than one and a half hours 19 bombs left six civilians and two British soldiers dead and a total of 130 injured. Two further bombs were defused and two failed to detonate amongst other hoax warnings.

The civilian dead on that sunny day numbered two men, two boys and two women - denominationally four Protestants and two Catholics. At least three Catholic civilians were murdered in appalling and utterly vile circumstances within days of the atrocity by Protestant ultras.

With regard to the two sites where fatalities occurred - the Cavehill Road bombing could be clearly heard from my nearby home in North Belfast and my uncle assisted at the globally infamous aftermath of the Oxford Street bus station explosion while employed in the Fire Service.

An exhaustive and deeply sobering BBC Northern Ireland 40th anniversary documentary on the events of the day transmitted last week - wherein no Republican spokespeople took part and with the programme itself not being broadcast on the BBC national television network across Great Britain. A subsequent Radio Ulster phone-in threw up even more ghastly minutiae including a civilian seeing children playing around the bridge supports where the first bomb would explode. Another caller who originated from the loyalist Shankill Road noted the irony in the fact that half of his fellow workers cowering from a nearby explosion in a top floor office were actually Catholics.

The political historian Alvin Jackson's analysis of a "British Ireland" within the extraordinarily thought-provoking Virtual History compendium of historical counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson in 1997 considered two alternative linear frameworks at the early part of the 20th Century. These being an Irish Home Rule bill having been fully passed in 1912 with the literally temporary exclusion of the six counties that would subsequently constitute the Northern Ireland state or the notion of Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force having engaged in direct conflict with the Royal Irish Constabulary and British Army in 1914. Jackson concludes that either alternative pathway to political or military resolution - as opposed to the actual introduction of such legislation in 1914 subsequent to radical Unionist military preparation and as preceding British involvement in the Great War - would most likely have led anyway to a fundamentally insecure polity redolent of a Yugoslavia-in-waiting across the Irish Sea from metropolitan Britain.

As for the three decade long civil war that then ensued between 1969 and 1994, Bloody Friday and countless other days of rank shame and pointless waste certainly underpinned the fact that whereas the island of Ireland may have been divided upon two mutually irreconcilable ethnic blocs at the end of the Sixties, the termination of the conflict left even more divisions scoured violently upon the face of the land and as focused on the issues of clear cut morality and ethics. That without even touching upon the fact that one former President of the USA and a New Labour spin doctor of note would both speak with  thorough cordiality and warmth of two of the leading figures of the Belfast IRA on Bloody Friday.

Returning to the fatalities of that day, 14-year-old Stephen Parker was posthumously awarded the Queen's Commendation for brave conduct for his attempts to warn shoppers at the Cavehill Road of the presence of a car bomb in the vicinity. His mutilated body could only be identified by the prescence of a Scout belt and a box of joke matches in his pocket.

His father, the Reverend Joseph Parker, subsequently founded the Witness for Peace Movement in February 1973 which bore Christian witness to all Troubles fatalities of every religion.

Previously, on Thursday 21st September 1972, he had commenced a protest outside Belfast City Hall to express his disgust against the stagnant political inertia of Ulster. The following day a female Catholic student  joined his "hunger strike for sanity". On Saturday 5th November around 600 people attended a City Hall dedication to all Troubles victims as conducted by the Reverend Parker. On Saturday 2nd December 1972 in turn he commenced another 48 hunger strike for peace at the GPO in O'Connell Street in Dublin.

In May 1974 the Witness for Peace Movement took part in the TUCs "Back to Work march" against the Ulster Workers Council strike that faced extreme Loyalist hostility on the 21st day of the month.

In light of negative responses from his own church to such initiatives the Reverend Parker and his family emigrated to Canada in 1974 -  in October of that year he announced "I am leaving my country and my church because I have been completely ostracised".   Parker, alike Belfast's legendary comic actor James Young, having stood alone as a relative sole voice of reason in an Ulster at war.

In Jill and Leon Uris' 1976 photographic collection Ireland - A Terrible Beauty the Parkers were featured in the section covering victimhood in Ulster - the commentary concluding :

There is something Godlike about Joe Parker and his wife that keeps them from being consumed with bitterness. HIs most fervent prayers are for the power to forgive, and he says it will not have been in vain if a new Ireland can come from it.......With all his courage he cannot conceal the pangs of everlasting agony, and as he pleads with you for peace, there is a haunting look in his eyes and he repeats over and over: "You know what I mean, don't you? You know what I mean?"

In turn, the testimonies in last week's documentary from the cousin of 39-year-old Thomas Killops, the widower of 34-year-old Margaret O'Hare, the sister of 15-year-old William Crothers and the mother of Stephen Parker thus standing both as unbearable echoes of a time when hatred was viciously heaped upon hatred and shattered reflections of lost souls.

(Stephen) never sat still for a moment. We often and indeed many's the time I said to him – "Oh for goodness sake sit still!".  Now I just wish he was here making all the noise again…and I could say…"Sit still Stephen... be quiet."