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Faith matters

Religious Affairs Correspondent: William Scholes tel: 028 9033 7544 email:

■ CONSULTATION: Alan McBride from the Wave trauma centre with junior ministers Jeffrey Donaldson, left, and Gerry Kelly, right, following the announcement of a consultation on a new strategy for victims and survivors


“You have to let people make their own journey and let them go at their own pace but you can’t let them hold up progress towards reconciliation”
Alan McBride

Dealing with the past and the legacy of the Troubles remains one of the biggest issues facing Northern Ireland. Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in an IRA bomb in 1993, tells Noreen Erskine about his own hard journey towards reconciliation

Lessons from a long and hard journey towards reconciliation
help carry the coffin of the Shankill bomber, Thomas Begley. However, the comments of the IRA man sitting in the pub “moved me to a place I had never been before”, Mr McBride said. “It was one of those stellar moments in my life because he acknowledged what had happened to me was wrong and didn’t try to justify it.” Mr McBride, who works for Wave, the cross-community organisation supporting victims of the Troubles, met the two former paramilitaries while attending a conference in Edinburgh on post-traumatic stress disorder many years after the bombing. In turn, he listened to the two men’s stories of why they each became involved in the Northern Ireland conflict which claimed more than 3,600 lives. Mr McBride spoke of their encounter at a recent seminar in Armagh which focused on dealing with the past. The seminar was organised by the Hard Gospel Project, which the Church of Ireland set up to combat sectarianism and racism. The event took place as the Consultative Group on the Past, chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, prepares to publish its report early next year recommending the best way to tackle the legacy of the past. During the seminar, Mr McBride recalled his childhood in the Westland housing estate in north Belfast, a loyalist enclave surrounded by predominantly nationalist and republican communities. At the time of the Ulster Workers Strike in 1974, when he was just 10 years old, his father joined the UDA and helped man the barricades erected at the end of his street. A member of his local Baptist church, he met his future wife, Sharon, there through their shared interest in voluntary work with young people belonging to the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades. Describing himself as coming from a traditional evangelical background, his faith was to be sorely tested by the despair that enveloped him after the Shankill bombing. He said: “The weeks and months that followed the bomb were extremely difficult. I couldn’t go near a church at all.” Instead, he spent much of his time walking around the slopes and summit of the Cave Hill area overlooking Belfast as he struggled with his grief. His first visit into the city centre several weeks later, to do some Christmas shopping with his daughter Zoe, then aged two, was also to prove a difficult time. death followed the natural order of things, while Sharon was only 29 and we had been married for just six or seven years. “The lesson I learnt from that was that everyone’s situation is different and you need to watch what you say when talking to people who are grieving.” Around this time, he became involved with Families Against Intimidation and Terror. He says the organisation, where he spent two years as a volunteer, provided him with an outlet for his anger. “I was angry. I was never a violent person, so I was never going to join a paramilitary organisation but I wanted to do something with my anger,” he said. “I got involved in quite a lot of highprofile protests highlighting the abuse of human rights by terrorist organisations, including when Gerry Adams was given the right to fundraise in America. “This was an affront to me, as my memory of him was of him carrying the coffin of the guy who murdered my wife.” His campaign included writing a series of letters to the Sinn Fein president. He says most went unanswered but that Gerry Adams did reply to his last two letters, one of which Alan, who doesn’t speak Irish, wrote “in pidgin Irish” with the aid of an Irish dictionary. During this time Alan was also writing letters to his wife, as well as making frequent visits to her grave. Within two years of her death, he had written three thick volumes to her. Initially they were about how much he was missing her but later he began reflecting in them on his upbringing and why the Troubles had come about. “I started to ask questions about it,” he said. “I do believe sectarianism played a

LAN MCBRIDE’S life has taken many unexpected turns since he lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA Shankill Road bomb in Belfast 15 years ago. Yet his decision to have a drink in an Edinburgh pub with an ex-UVF lifesentence prisoner and a former IRA man led to what he calls “one of the stellar moments” of his life. He told them of how his 29-year-old wife Sharon and her father John Frizell had been among the 10 people killed in the fish-shop bombing on a sunny Saturday afternoon in October 1993. After he stopped speaking, he says the IRA man touched his arm and looked directly into his eyes. He then admitted the attack was wrong, saying he was sorry it happened. This was not the first time republicans have apologised for the bomb. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams did so shortly after the explosion. His remarks – that the bombing was wrong and could not be excused – were largely drowned out by the outcry which followed his decision to


“It’s not about apportioning blame, or what-aboutery. It’s about showing some understanding of the other side and allowing people the space to tell their stories”

Alan McBride

While there, he met a woman whose elderly father had died a few weeks earlier. She told him she understood exactly what he was going through. “She was trying to be nice but with the best will in the world, she had no idea of what I was going through,” he said. “Her father was an old man and his

huge part in fuelling the conflict and keeping it going. I know there were more ideological reasons why some people got involved but the very heart of it for me was that there was this divided society where sectarianism was fuelling and fanning the conflict.” In 1998 he said he would vote yes for the Good Friday Agreement, in spite of his reservations over the early release of paramilitary prisoners which formed part of the agreement. Ten years on, Alan McBride feared the recent political impasse at Stormont was threatening to draw Northern Ireland backwards. Speaking before the announcement that the executive would resume its meetings on November 20, he was critical of both Sinn Fein and the DUP concerning the five-month stalemate over the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers. Although he has married again and found renewed happiness at a personal level, the memory of those dark days after the Shankill bombing remains a driving force in Alan’s quest to help build a shared future. “The focus must be on reconciliation,” he said. “It’s not about apportioning blame, or what-aboutery. It’s about showing some understanding of the other side and allowing people the space to tell their stories. “One of the main learning points in my story is that no two people are the same. You have to let people make their own journey and let them go at their own pace but you can’t let them hold up progress towards reconciliation.” ■ The Church of Ireland established the Hard Gospel Project in 2005 to tackle sectarianism and racism and to face the challenges of historic difference in the Ireland of the 21st century.