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collective amnesia


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- Children in war
- Collective amnesia
- Catching them young
- Alex Comfort


By the end of 1999 the conflict in Northern Ireland had led to 3636 deaths (2000 has not started well, the deaths go on). 2,037 were civilians. A recent book, Lost Lives, has restored them at least in part to our memory, by listing each of them and where possible, describing the circumstances of their death. It was an enormous and painful task for those who compiled this book. They hope that this volume ‘will stand as a monument to the sheer waste and horror of war, and that there will be no more lost lives’: a wish that has sadly not been met. Their aim has been to be non-judgemental. Researched largely by seasoned Belfast journalists, tears were shed in the writing, and will be shed in the reading.

This side of the water, when 16 children and their teacher died in the Dunblane shootings, due to the impact of the deaths occurring in one tragic event, the age of the children, and the active work of those who campaigned, handguns were banned. That legislation does not apply to Northern Ireland – and yet far more children have died there over the last 30 years. Because they occurred over time and not all at once, those deaths have not had the impact in the rest of the UK that they should. As I was writing this, Roy Hattersley in an article in the Guardian (10.4.00) referred to the terrible consequences of ‘collective amnesia’. He said ‘We were always prepared to allow Ireland to suffer as long as it suffered in silence. The result was years of murder and mayhem which may not yet be over.’

I looked for the child victims of this conflict. As far as I can see there are 256 under 18-year olds who have died (plus several unborn babies). I had remembered a few and forgotten the vast majority.

Patrick was the first child to die. He was struck by a tracer bullet while he was lying in his bed. Age 9 years.
Carol and Bernadette were asleep in bed when the bomb their father was making downstairs went off. Ages 4 and 9 years.
Angela was learning to walk, holding on to a pram when a gunman’s bullet ricocheted and killed her. Age 18 months.
Tracy and Colin were in a pram being pushed past a furniture showroom when a bomb went off. Ages 2 years and 17 months .
Rosaleen was shot by a sniper aiming at soldiers. Age 8 years.
Overwhelmingly the brief accounts of the children who died make you wish this book was compulsory reading matter for the politicians of Northern Ireland. Their deaths illustrate so clearly the futility and tragedy of a conflict fought out in the streets, and the lack of care for those who ‘got in the way’.


Funeral of the three Quinn children who died when a petrol bomb was thrown into their Ballymoney home at the heights of the Orange Order disputes at Drumcree in July 1998


Children have been blown up by bombs and mines, shot by guns which went off accidentally, been caught in the cross fire, died in rioting, been killed by plastic bullets, shot while joyriding, been beaten, stabbed, hit by cars, consumed by fire or have even hung themselves. They have been killed by the army, the SAS , the RUC, the UDR, the IRA, the UVF, the Red Hand Commando, INLA, UDA/UFF and the ‘Real’ IRA . Above all, they have been killed by mistake.

Alan was also in a pram, being hurriedly pushed away after a bomb warning. Glass from the explosion killed him. Age 5 months.
Kathryn was cleaning windows when the bomb blew her up. Age 9 years.
James was struck by a bullet. ‘Jim fell,’ said his sister. Age 4 years.
Paula and Clare were playing round a Hallowe’en bonfire after taking part in a fancy dress competition, when the car bomb went off. Ages 6 and 4 years.
William was playing cowboys and indians with his brother when the landmine blew up. Age 9 years.

Some of their names may be familiar because they are recent deaths – the most recent in 1998. The first was in 1969. Some are memorable because their relatives have made them so. Joanne, Andrew and John were the Maguire children, whose aunt is the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Johnathan died in the explosion which also killed Tim Parry in Warrington. Tim’s parents, Colin and Wendy, have worked actively for peace, and set up the Warrington Peace Centre which opened in March this year. In 1972, a 14 year old, Stephen Parker, was killed by a car bomb. He was the son of a prominent peace campaigner who later founded the Witness for Peace movement, the Reverend William Parker. In November 1972 he held a service at Belfast city hall in memory of those killed in the troubles – then 436, with white crosses for each. He said many years later: ‘We held services for everybody, soldiers, IRA, everybody, all the dead. Unfortunately, I was a little bit ahead of my time....I was asked by my bishop if I would confine my peace activities to my day off.’ The 15 year old brother of Katrina Rennie who was shot in 1991, also set up a reconciliation group. In 1997 after James, a local 16 year old Catholic was beaten to death, 200 of the mainly Protestant residents of the village met and agreed to rid the village ‘through words, gestures and deeds’ of a sectarian image.

Siobhan had gone to visit her grandmother further down the street when a bullet hit her. Age 4 years.
Eileen was shot in her home by gunmen aiming at her father. Age 6 years.
Joanne, Andrew and John were crushed to death when a car went out of control and mounted the pavement after the driver was shot by a soldier. Ages 8 years, 6 weeks and 2 years respectively.
Bridget died in her father’s arms, with her parents, in a petrol bombing. Age 10 months.
Graeme was in his mother’s arms when debris from a car bomb killed him. Age 15 months.

I discovered what I should have realised, that while most were truly ‘innocent’ victims, some of the children of Northern Ireland were trained to kill too. Some of the older children had been recruited by the paramilitaries who like to get them young, just as the British army does. Three of the dead were 17 year old British soldiers (and there were at least 47 18-year old British soldiers too). Sometimes they have killed themselves or other ‘children’ – the most ironic death perhaps was a young bomber whose bomb went off accidentally – he was Catholic, and his friend who also died (an 18 year-old) was a Protestant member of the IRA – the only Protestant IRA member killed. (If the concept of a Protestant member of the IRA strikes you as unusual, remember there is no black and white in this orange and green conflict.) I do not know how many of the teenagers of Northern Ireland have been convicted as killers.

Paul was playing in his garden when he was shot in the head. Age 4 years.
Lee and Robert were blown up when a bomb exploded on a coach. Ages 5 and 2 years.
Jacqueline and Anne Marie were blown up in a car bomb explosion. Ages 17 months and 5 months.
Patrick was bringing home the cows when the bomb went off. Age 7 years.
Michelle was holding her father’s hand when the booby-trap bomb blew up. All that was left were bits of her dress. Age 3 years.

The ‘child soldiers’ die too. There was Gerard, age 17, who died with an 18 year old girl while making a bomb, in 1971. Michael who died in an ‘accidental’ shooting, possibly during a firearms training lecture for the IRA, age 16. David, age 14, who died from a ‘non-infectious disease’ which turned out to be a gun-shot wound – he was in the IRA youth wing; Gerard, age 16, whose gun apparently went off in his hand; Patrick, age 17, who was accidentally shot by another member of the IRA; Samuel, age 17, and John, age 17 killed while handling a bomb – their family said the IRA ordered them to move gelignite, knowing it was in an unstable condition; Joseph and Jackie, both age 17 years, blown up when a bomb went off prematurely – Joseph was a veteran ‘child soldier’, living constantly on the run, one of the army’s most wanted men. Vivienne, age 17 (no sex discrimination in the IRA) died preparing a bomb..... the list goes on. There were at least 24 youngsters, mostly in the IRA, who died preparing bombs which went off prematurely, or playing with guns. The paramilitaries are as careless with the lives of their young members as any state army.

Hugh was either deliberately run down by an Army Saracen armoured car, or hit on the head by an iron bar bouncing off the car, depending whose version is believed. Age 9 years.

David was blown up by a landmine. His parents’ car was mistaken for that of a judge. Age 7 years.
Nivruti was killed in an gun attack in W. Germany (her father who also died was an airman of Indian origin). Age 6 months.
Johnathan was shopping for a Mother’s Day present when he was blown up. Age 3 years.
Michelle loved crab sticks from the fish shop. She was blown to pieces in the shop. Age 7 years.

Each of the deaths had a shattering effect on their family which can never be truly imagined – and way beyond the family. The tragic consequences include the first ambulance man on the scene of the IRA bomb blast at the Baltic Exchange – Danielle Carter was the 15 year old child victim there. The ambulance man never recovered – five months later he killed his girlfriend with a shotgun and tried to kill himself again – he is in a secure psychiatric unit. There was the father of Kevin Heatley, a 12 year old killed by the army in disputed circumstances – the father committed suicide later; the mother of Maurice Knowles, a 17 year old Protestant shot by a 16 year old Catholic, who killed herself a year later; and the mother of the 3 Maguire children, Anne Maguire, who committed suicide some years later. It is good that the authors have included these as victims too though the official lists may not do so. The mother of James Kennedy, in the quotation at the head of this article, died of a broken heart. They are his father’s words.

Barbara was the ‘eyes and ears’ of her deaf and dumb mother. She was shot in her living room, playing with a jigsaw puzzle. Age 9 years.
Richard, Mark, and Jason died in a petrol bombing of their house. They were all brothers. Ages 10, 9 and 8 respectively.
Breda was to have been flower girl at her uncle’s wedding, and was shopping to find shoes when the bomb went off. Age 20 months.
Oran was one of three children whose families had been hosting Spanish children on an exchange, all blown up. Age 8 years.
Maura, the ‘beautiful, curly-headed angel’ was blown up with her mother who was also expecting twin daughters. Age 18 months.

‘A trail of people share the guilt, a trail going back to those who sharpened their tongues like swords, to those who aimed bitter words like arrows.’

These words of a Catholic bishop at one of the many funerals in Northern Ireland remind us that those who fired the guns, planted the bombs, used plastic bullets for riot control, set fire to houses, beat children to death, are not the only ones who are to blame. Those who incited them, and those who used children to kill, those who paid for the guns, bombs and bullets and those who claim to be doing it ‘in our name’ must be included.

Most of us share in the collective amnesia, but the authors of this book will not let us forget those who died, much as we may wish to. ‘Those who died ....include civilians, members of loyalist and republican groups, political figures, soldiers, joyriders, alleged drug dealers, judges and magistrates, those killed in the course of armed robberies, prison officers, police officers, convicted killers, businessmen, alleged informers, Ulster Defence Regiment members, those who died on hunger strike, men, women, children, pensioners and unborn babies. They are all here.’ This is the reality of warfare – there is no distinction in death.

This is our conflict. The horror of the 29 deaths (plus two unborn children) at Omagh were supposed to have shocked us all. Has it been truly understood that this must never happen again? We must continue to support all those striving for peace, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
In February Andrew and David, 19 and 18 years old, had their throats slashed in a brutal killing in Portadown, apparently as part of a loyalist feud, though they were not paramilitaries.
Lucy Beck

Lost Lives. David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton. Mainstream Publishing. £30.00. ISBN 1 84018 227 X

Under 18s killed at Bloody Sunday:
all age 17
Jack Duddy, Hugh Gilmore, Michael Kelly, Kevin McElhinney, John Young, Gerard Donaghy and Michael McDaid.

Under 18s
killed by rubber and plastic bullets:
Francis Rowntree, Age 11 years.
Stephen Geddis, Age 10 years.
Brian Stewart, Age 13 years.
Paul Whitters, Age 15 years.
Julie Livingstone, Age 14 years.
Carol Ann Kelly, Age 11 years, returning home from buying a pint of milk.
Stephen McConomy, Age 11 years.
Seamus Duffy, Age 15 years.


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