News Letter
29 February 2012

A SOUTH Armagh peacemaker has revealed he knows several former IRA members who are in “torment” over things they have done during ‘The Troubles’ and would like to find forgiveness for their past actions.

Ian Bothwell of Crossfire Trust in Darkley was speaking to the News Letter in the wake of high tensions in south Armagh over a walk for victims of the 1976 Kingsmills Massacre, in which 10 Protestant textile workers were murdered by the IRA.

The walk, planned for last Saturday, was to be through the strongly nationalist village of Whitecross.

However, it was vigorously opposed by the SDLP and Sinn Fein and in the end the families postponed it until they felt they would be welcome.

But peacemaker Ian Bothwell, who together with his wife Pauline have been active in community relations work in south Armagh for some 30 years, has taken the opportunity to propose a new way forward between paramilitaries and victims in the area.

He says he knows several former IRA members who would like closure on the deeds they have committed in the past.

“We are talking about a number of republicans who have engaged in front-line activity,” he told the News Letter.

“They would like closure. They would like to deal with the torment in their minds and I think they would like to have a framework which would allow them to feel safe in doing so.

“This really needs to be openly and purposely supported by churches and political leaders across the board. I think some people really feel bad and do regret the past.

“They are maybe sorry for the pain they have caused, yet not sorry for having felt they had to do it.

“They are on a journey and if they were to see the appropriate response coming from across the other side of the community at the same time, then I think we could be amazed at how far we could get at forgiving and letting go.

“I think we could be amazed at the area of common ground we could find in pursuit of lasting deep peace and wholeness.”

“People have expressed these feelings to me,” he said.

“We are talking about a number of people from Keady down to Crossmaglen, ranging from their forties to older. These people are seeking forgiveness for their past actions.”

But is there an inner conflict in the minds of people who are tormented by their past deeds and yet may still feel there was justification for their actions?

“That is the hub of the issue,” Ian says. “There are days when they will see it one way and days they will see it another. That is a reflection of the journey they are on. That is the dilemma for those of us trying to get a handle on the past.

“I don’t think one template will suit everyone. I can see the day coming when neighbour will talk to neighbour spontaneously.

“If there were more shared community festivals, for example agriculture and ploughing events, these would create opportunities for people to speak together naturally in south Armagh.”

How might an encounter proceed where a victim would ask why their loved one was murdered and an IRA member might reply that ‘it was war’?

“Questions like this need to be unpacked,” he says.

“There could be facilitation, but only coming from growing relationships and trust between people who have been victims and people who have been involved in creating the pain.

“We need to trust our feelings that there are unresolved issues that will fester if we don’t put something in place to clean out wounds, irrespective of how they were caused.”

He is also concerned about stopping the cycle whereby “propaganda” is influencing a new generation.

“We need to stop propaganda to those in their teens and twenties who think that the only way to be a hero is to get their names in the history books,” he said.

“Young people need to know about the depths of feelings of loneliness and abandonment of prisoners and widows, realities which are not conveyed to them today.”

But why have some republicans begun to feel such remorse – and why now?

“Some south Armagh republicans have been expressing such views to me since Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley started having a warm and open public working relationship,” he says.

“The continuation of this relationship between Martin and Peter [Robinson] has deepened the impact,” he says.

“The question then arose – what was it all for? Taken together with the Queen’s visit to the Republic, when President McAleese took that risk and walked out together in peace … these people have ended up being surprised at their own deep emotional reaction to these developments.

“It is making them think again – what was it all for? There is no doubt they are now glad we are moving in this direction and that there is some clarity of thought. Maybe it is a relief that the war is over?”

He would be glad to talk to anyone who is interested in discussing the issues.

“There is the possibility we may not deliver, but it worth trying,” he added.

• The News Letter is inviting south Armagh reaction to Ian Bothwell’s thoughts in a series of pieces this week.