Victims of a loyalist bomb in Co Cavan and an IRA bomb in London gave emotional public testimony for the first time today to 200 people at the European Day of Remembrance of Victims of Terrorism at Stormont.
However the audience – reportedly the largest ever for the event – responded by lifting them up with applause even as they struggled to recount their trials of surviving loyalist and republican terror.
The annual event was instituted by the European Commission after the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
The Northern Ireland gathering was organised by TUV MLA Jim Allister, co-sponsored by SDLP MLAs Patsy McGlone and Claire Hanna, and UUP MLAs Robin Swann and Mike Nesbitt.
Mr Allister opened the event, noting: “Terrorists chose to be terrorists, victims did not choose to be victims.”
Anthony and Marie O’Reilly from Belturbet in Co Cavan told how loyalist bombers murdered his 15-year-old sister Geraldine in a 1972 attack on their Co Cavan town.
Anthony had been in Glasgow but returned home to care for his parents. One night he stopped at the chip shop to let his sister buy some chips.
He came around, thinking he had been dreaming, when he had actually been knocked unconscious by the bomb.
Staggering out of his wrecked car, he said: “I called and called, but there was no answer”. He found Geraldine lying inside the chip shop.
His wife Marie said he developed “a great sense of guilt” after her death, feeling it would not have happened if he had stayed in Glasgow.
“We are very emotional,” she said. “This is one of the first times he has stood up and spoken about this. I really admire him.”
The audience responded with rousing applause.
Rajaa Berezag from London told a similar story about the day her father Zaoui, now 77, was caught in the massive 1996 IRA Canary Wharf bomb.
Given the choice between her mother and father taking her to the dentist, the nine-year-old chose her mother – resulting in her father going to work and parking beside the massive bomb.
Against all odds he survived, albeit with severe brain damage. In one sense “he was gone” she said. “I had to get to know a whole new man.”
Her mother Gemma spent the rest of her life as his full-time carer, dying at age 57.
Rajaa now faces severe pressure to sell her home to afford care for her father.
She told the audience she was nervous and had never been in a room with terror victims before.
“Today I feel honoured to be here,” she said, before her voice and tears broke.
Mr Allister stepped in: “Everyone in this room wants to know that the honour is ours,” he assured her.
Ex-RUC officer Paul Conley told how his back was seriously injured in a south Armagh IRA land mine attack in the 1980s. Then after moving to Ardoyne in Belfast, he saw people killed by both republicans and loyalists.
“It still eats away at you ... you still see it in your dreams,” he said.
Causing serious damage to the UFF as a detective, the group responded with two failed bomb attacks on his car.
He added: “Many people today want us to forget, but we who were there will never forget the sacrifices made by the police.”
Mr Nesbitt said that he had never seen so many people attending the annual event.
He said a former RUC officer recounted a conversation with a former IRA man to him.
The ex-police officer said:”I never got out of bed thinking ‘who would I harm today?’.” But the IRA man responded to him: “There you are, that is the difference. I did.”
Mr Nesbitt urged those present that when the consultation begins for the proposed legacy bodies, “shout loud about that difference”.