As I keep saying, the past is still way, way ahead of us

Death stops the clock and freezes the calendar; both for the individual who has died and, often, for those closest to them.

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Things are never quite the same after the death of someone close, even when the person has died quickly and without illness, after a long, well-lived life.

There is still that awareness of the empty chair in the kitchen or lounge; the untended vegetable patch; the absence of that insight into an earlier lifestyle and era.

Yet most of us can find comfort in the shared memories of happy moments; and in finding them, move on while never forgetting.

Death stops the clock, both for the individual who has died and, often, for those closest to them

There’s never a day, not a single day, when I don’t think of my wonderful adoptive parents; and my only regret is that they never got to be the grandparents they would love to have been. But they ‘live’ on through my writing about them and in the very visible influence they still have on me.

It is much more difficult to come to terms with a young life ended on a battlefield, with the body never returned for burial in a local graveyard; somewhere where parents, families and friends can gather and remember.

I’ve seen the photographs in our own family albums of young men — often in their teens or early 20s — who left for war and never came back. A close friend of my Dad returned with an arm and leg amputated; indeed, when I was growing up it was still quite common to see those who had lost limbs.

Whether they were angry or resentful I never really knew, because they rarely, if ever, talked about their experience of war.

One of my aunts lost both her husband and her son. She talked about them every time we visited her and I’m pretty sure she talked to them when we weren’t there. Every room had photographs of them. She kept her son’s childhood toys in a box in her bedroom. Their medals were framed, hung above the fireplace and dusted every day.

Unless you knew the full story you would never have known that she had played her own vital, courageous role during the war, serving as a nurse in some very dangerous places. Yet she never got over the fact that she had survived. Her clock and her calendar were frozen, too.

The more I’ve read about those who have lost loved ones during our Troubles here, the more I’m aware of that frozen clock, frozen calendar dimension. In most cases the relatives of the victims will be aware of the background and motives of those who planted the bomb or pulled the trigger; and that’s because it is relatively easy to imagine the culprit — not least because the organisations concerned often issued a statement of responsibility.

What is much more difficult to come to terms with is the fact that there is a huge difference between ‘organisational’ responsibility and individual accountability and punishment.

That is true of a war, too: you will know, for example, that someone was killed or wounded by enemy fire, but you will probably never know the name of the individual soldier who fired the shot or hurled the grenade.

But a terrorist campaign is not the same as a war. Terrorism brings the outrage to a front door, or a car in a driveway (into which children may be getting to be driven to school), or a local pub, or a fish-and-chip shop, or a rowing boat.

It’s often just tit-for-tat outrage, with no clear military or political purpose. Terrorists don’t operate by any recognised code of war (even though it has always struck me as bizarre that we do have internationally recognised rules of war.)

The other peculiarity about terrorism — unlike war — is that the political fronts and mouthpieces of terrorism are often given access to local media to try and ‘justify’ their outrages.

The particular difficulty for relatives of victims in Northern Ireland is that too many of them believe that the conflict hasn’t ended.

So, while it may be true that the likelihood of being bombed or shot has certainly reduced, they believe that there has been no resolution of the conflict; no sign that Northern Ireland really has changed for the better for them; the feeling that their personal concerns are always sidelined or ignored; growing evidence that it wouldn’t take much to drag us back to the ‘dark old days’; a one-side narrative being promoted; and, crucially, no evident closure for them.

But if we cannot find a way of defrosting the truth about what happened here, then the truth about the past remains frozen and the various sides simply promote their own propaganda and narrative to their respective communities.

What happens then, of course, is that ‘truth’ often morphs into myth and legend and each side ends up believing only what it wants to believe.

Resolution requires truth; irrespective of how unpleasant and uncomfortable that truth may be. My fear is that neither side actually wants to know the truth; which is why they shy away from it.

When I was a boy I remember family friends — family members, too —who found it very difficult to forgive the Germans or Japanese. In many cases they never did forgive them. It was easier for the next generation because there was evidence that wrongs had been acknowledged, punishment meted out, lessons learned and new political/societal structures put in place.

In terms of NI I’m not persuaded that wrongs have been acknowledged, lessons learned or punishment meted out. There remains an absence of justice and the new political structures are terribly flimsy.

So it looks to me as though the next generation or three will find it very difficult to move on, let alone forgive. As I keep saying: the past is still way, way ahead of us.