Liam McMahon is a Macalester College student spending the semester in Derry/Londonderry with HECUA’s Northern Ireland program. Liam’s internship with the Pat Finucane Centre has brought him into close contact with community members who lost loved ones during the Troubles, and who are now seeking truth and justice. (More about that process here). Liam was generous enough to share his reflections on what it means to bear witness in the blog post below.
Coming to Northern Ireland for the semester, I knew something about the complexities of the place. I knew that I would be studying at Ulster University’s Magee campus, which is in the city of Derry if you’re an Irish Nationalist, or the city of Londonderry, if you’re a British Unionist. I knew I would be studying in the North of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, depending again on who you talk to. However, I had no sense of the places I would be welcomed into or the people I would meet.
This semester, through HECUA’s Democracy and Social Change program in Northern Ireland, I am an intern at the Pat Finucane Centre, a non-party political, anti-sectarian human rights organization. It is named in honor of Pat Finucane, a human rights lawyer murdered in 1989 by the Ulster Defence Association, a Loyalist paramilitary organization, in collusion with the British state. The Centre works with families bereaved during the Northern Ireland conflict. They assist families trying to find out what happened to their loved one, and–when they can–help families achieve some modicum of justice.
One thing that has been repeated in and out of the classroom during my time in Derry/Londonderry is the power and importance of relationships. I see this at work at the Pat Finucane Centre. The PFC works with families who have never processed their decades-old trauma, who have been told by government officials that their lived experience is invalid, that what they know happened to their loved one is a load of political propaganda. The PFC works with the kind of people for whom this conflict never ended; people for whom the conflict cannot end until they know, actually know, what happened to their loved one. For some, it cannot end until they see the person responsible brought to justice.
When engaging with people who feel that way, who have been unheard for so long, it is essential to build relationships. If families cannot trust PFC’s caseworkers, then those caseworkers can’t do the work they need to, and it almost isn’t worth doing.
In my second week at the PFC, I was invited to go down to Belfast and see a day of the Ballymurphy Inquest. The Inquest is investigating the deaths of 11 civilians killed by the British Army over three days in Belfast in 1971. At the inquest, I met with families who lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents. These are people who were young, in some cases not even born, when their loved one died. Their parents spent the last part of their lives fighting for truth and justice for their children, but are no longer living, and so the next generation has taken on the fight. It was incredibly moving to meet people, kind, gracious people, willing to take a few minutes out from hearing evidence to stop and chat with me, a random American whose only credential for being there was as a PFC intern along with a PFC caseworker for the day. The evidence we heard concerned the deaths of four people, one of whom had been shot by the Army and was crying out to the soldiers for help when they came up and shot him again, killing him. Some of the evidence painted a graphic picture of a woman who had half her head blown off by a shot, and other evidence attested to the soldiers laughing and telling jokes while collecting dead bodies.
As an outsider, it was deeply disturbing. I saw witnesses choke up on the stand, saw family members grow emotional in the public gallery. It was hard not to be moved, to feel something. It was also absolutely remarkable that the same people taking the time to speak with me, share a little of themselves and answer my questions, were doing it in between listening to evidence about how their father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin, died. I don’t know if I would have the strength to do that, let alone show up for the inquest day after day. There were family members coming into the Inquest throughout the day, popping in over a lunch break, and before or after work shifts. The dedication to it, and the dedication to each other, to the relationships and support they had with each other, was quite special to see.
The following week, I went back to Derry/Londonderry, where the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) was going to announce whether any soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday would be charged with crimes. Bloody Sunday is one of the ugliest moments in the Troubles, and cast a shadow over the rest of the conflict — it still casts a shadow over Northern Ireland, and this city specifically. On 30 January, 1972, the British Army killed 14 unarmed civilians and injured another 14. It took until 2010 for the British Government to admit those people were innocent and to apologize, and until 2019 for them to bring any charges against the soldiers involved.
On the day of the announcement, I went with the PFC staff to the Museum of Free Derry, which sits almost exactly on the site where most of the shooting happened. Family members of those killed and injured were gathering there to walk into the city center for a meeting with the PPS at the City Hotel before holding a press conference at the Guildhall, one of the city’s main gathering places. As at the Inquest, I was struck by the relationships that the families had built with each other, the way they cared about and supported each other. I again had the chance to meet people, although I tread even more carefully than at the Inquest — understandably, the people at the Museum were anxious, nervous about the day ahead and reliving 47 years of trauma. Where the Inquest was charged, on that day you could feel the tension and emotion in the air. The last thing the families needed was me underfoot.
We walked with the families towards their meeting, standing behind a line of people holding up photos of their murdered brothers, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles, and another line of family members with a banner that read “Towards Justice.” As we turned a corner and headed for the hotel, several of the family members began singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement. I don’t often cry, but when I heard people changing the lyrics to go “we shall overcome, today,” I started to well up, and am getting goosebumps while writing about it. As someone not of this place, not connected to Bloody Sunday outside of my brief time at the PFC, I felt incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to experience that, and also a little guilty to have been there as an outsider.
Things then took a turn. We spent a little over an hour anxiously awaiting the decision, which was subject to a press embargo until shortly before the families would hold their press conference. Rumors flitted across the city center and people obsessively checked Twitter, only for the news to be passed from whispered conversation to whispered conversation, five minutes before the embargo was to lift: the PPS only planned to charge one soldier.
What had been an anxious but hopeful day turned funereal. It was heart-wrenching to see the families stream over from the Hotel into the Guildhall — it looked like some had just learned their loved one had died again. I was in the room when the families gave a press conference just minutes after the news broke to the rest of the world, and was struck once again by their dignity and grace. Through the rest of the day, I felt the same way each time I heard a family member interviewed on television or on the radio. I doubt I would have been able to do that.
It still feels rather surreal that I was there at all. I have no familial connection to this city, had never met anyone from PFC or family members connected to Bloody Sunday before coming on this program. And yet, I was welcomed into that space, and had the opportunity to see the day unfold. It’s worth going a step further, and acknowledging that the entire experience has been a bit surreal. Meeting people whose lives have been deeply affected by conflict, especially conflict that you have studied, is deeply challenging. You can cognitively know that those people exist, and be aware of their stories, but meeting them in person is a completely different ballgame.
Meeting those people has changed how I react and think about the conflict. The first time I heard some of these stories, I felt quite sad, and was left shaking my head at the injustice of the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday families. Meeting the people made my reactions to their stories much more visceral. Hearing about the soldiers laughing at Ballymurphy made me want to throw up. There are a lot of good, well-meaning people who care about injustice when it’s represented through statistics, but when a statistic becomes an actual human being, it means a lot more. While here, I have a chance to hear people’s stories, actually hear them in a way that is unique for some. I can help their loved one be not just one of 3,600 people who died in the conflict, but a person with a story and a family that loved them. As an outsider here, there is little I can do to bring government back to Northern Ireland or tear down the peace walls that still physically divide this society. But, I can listen, and validate people’s stories and existences. That’s a small thing that hopefully makes life a little bit easier for people who’ve been unheard for so long, and brings them closer to peace.