Diary

Fintan O’Toole

On the last Sunday in July, Darren Graham took off his shirt and walked across the pitch to the dressing-room. He had been playing Gaelic football for Lisnaskea Emmets, his local team in County Fermanagh, against a team from nearby Brookeborough, when someone from the opposing team called him a ‘black cunt’. ‘Black’, in this case, was a reference not to the colour of his skin but to his religion. It is short for ‘Black Protestant’, a long-standing term of sectarian abuse. ‘It just came to a head,’ he told the Belfast Telegraph. ‘Something bad [was said] on the field: “You’re a black cunt.” Then another ran by and said: “It’s the truth, you’re nothing but that.”’ He said that he would not play again unless he received an apology and was convinced that the Gaelic Athletic Association was serious about stamping out sectarianism.

Few people outside his own area had heard of Darren Graham or indeed of Lisnaskea Emmets, one of hundreds of parish clubs with amateur players. But the GAA is a big deal. Of all the institutions that emerged from the Irish nationalist cultural revival of the 19th century, it is the only one still unequivocally in rude good health. It embodies a sense of Irish identity that is tangible, local and pleasurable. It also embodies the unspoken tension within that identity, for though it is officially non-political and non-sectarian, the GAA is overwhelmingly Catholic. Particularly in Northern Ireland, it is identified almost exclusively with the Catholic and nationalist side of the great divide.

By going public on the abuse he’s been getting since he was 18 – he is now 25 – Darren Graham pressed on a raw nerve. He exposed the contradictions between the ideals and the realities of a certain kind of Irish identity. And his story therefore got a great deal of media coverage. It followed the usual twists of such narratives: mealy-mouthed statements by the local branch of the GAA, claiming that he had failed to make an official complaint; mutterings from rival players that the abuse was just the normal sledging of opponents; lots of tut-tutting from senior officials; an offer from the president of the GAA to have Darren Graham as his guest at a big game held at the association’s imposing main stadium in Dublin; an eventual apology from the Fermanagh GAA, leading to Graham’s decision to return to the game.

Somewhere behind the coverage, though, there was a sense of something not being said. Colm Bradley, a GAA footballer and journalist, hinted at it: ‘I have played senior club football in Fermanagh for over a decade and I have been aware that Darren Graham has been on the receiving end of sectarian abuse and I would have guessed that plenty of officialdom knew too. It is actually with a fair degree of shame that I admit knowing and, as a journalist, I should have highlighted this unacceptable behaviour a long time ago.’ Bradley did not go on to explain the silence. Even he was reluctant to say who Darren Graham is and why people know him to be a Protestant. They know because they remember, with the kind of memory that is scarcely distinguishable from amnesia, what the IRA did to Darren Graham’s family.

They got Ronnie Graham first, while he was delivering coal not far from his own house in Lisnaskea. He was 39. After the killing, the IRA left their guns to be moved by a 13-year-old boy, who had been recruited into its youth wing by a teacher at his school. The teacher was named in court at the boy’s trial, but this aspect of the story is scarcely recalled at all. It is not part of the memory that the IRA recruited child soldiers. Five months later, in November 1981, Ronnie’s younger brother, Cecil, was visiting his wife and their newborn baby at her parents’ house. She was staying there because the baby was premature and needed constant attention. But Cecil’s wife was a Catholic, and the house she was staying in was in Donagh, a nationalist area. Cecil was spotted going into the house. As he left, he was shot 16 times. He was 32. It took them more than three years to get the third Graham brother. They had tried to kill Jimmy in 1980, but he had fought them off, and been given the British Empire Medal. Perhaps his escape had annoyed them, or perhaps, as many Protestants believed, there was a deliberate plan of ethnic cleansing, aimed at wiping out whole families. In any case, he was a soft target now. He left his small farm one morning in February 1985 in the school bus he drove to collect children from a primary school and take them to the local swimming pool. He was parking the bus when they fired the first two shots at him. Then they got into the bus and fired 24 more. They drove away in a blue Escort van that was later found eight miles away in the hills that mark the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Darren Graham is the premature baby Cecil Graham was visiting when the IRA killed him. He is the embodiment of all the reasons why the idea of ‘two traditions’ – Catholic nationalist and Protestant Unionist – enshrined in the Belfast Agreement is a crude distortion of reality. Darren Graham’s paternal grandfather was a member of the B Specials, the exclusively Protestant and notoriously sectarian part-time constabulary. His father, uncles and aunt (who died young, having never fully recovered from injuries she sustained when a car crashed though a checkpoint she was operating) were part-time members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, the local wing of the British army which replaced the B Specials. This allowed the IRA to justify its assault on the family. But his mother was Catholic and so is his two-year-old daughter.

Some people who know Darren Graham well have expressed surprise at learning that he is a Protestant. He went to the local state (effectively Protestant) primary school but turned out for the Catholic school’s Gaelic football team from the age of 12. As he got older, it became more obvious that people knew exactly who he was. ‘I got a wee bit of abuse through the ranks at under-14, under-16 and Minors (under-18),’ he told the Fermanagh Herald, ‘but nothing really heavy till I hit the senior ranks. A couple of games, perhaps, somebody would mention something about my father or my uncles, but it wasn’t that really. It was more, “black bastard” and: “You’re a Protestant, you shouldn’t be playing Gaelic sport.”’

It is striking that his abusers tended to taunt him as a Protestant rather than as a member of his particular family. What was done to the Grahams left at least some people with a bad conscience, but one that expressed itself only in silence and evasion. Cecil Graham’s Catholic father-in-law told the inquest in 1983 that in the two years since Cecil’s death ‘none of the neighbours had extended sympathy or even mentioned the murder of his son-in-law.’ But the silence belied an unspoken disturbance. Colm Tóibín, in Bad Blood, described walking through the area three years after they killed the third Graham brother. He found that the dead Grahams were seen as uneasy, vengeful spirits. Talking to two young Catholic men in Kinawley, he mentioned the spate of car accidents in the area, in which all the victims seemed to be young Catholic men. ‘People think it’s revenge,’ one of them blurted out. When pushed, they explained that older people believed the accidents were retribution for what was done to the Grahams. ‘God, you know, did I understand? It was God.’ The unspoken guilt transmuted itself into irrational fear, and it is not hard to see how that fear could in turn be channelled into the abuse of Cecil Graham’s son, the offspring of an unforgiving ghost.

Guilt for the murderous campaign against Border Protestants was kept at bay by the insistence that the victims were UDR men and therefore mere ciphers of British imperialism. The IRA, and the wider Catholic community that has made Sinn Féin its political voice, likes to see the IRA campaign in retrospect as a ‘war’ in the classic sense, a conflict in which soldier was pitted against soldier. While Loyalist paramilitaries killed Catholics out of psychotic sectarian hatred, Republican paramilitaries killed Protestants only because they were, in IRA-speak, ‘part of the imperial war machine’. The formula magics away the inconvenient truth that the murders of UDR men like the Grahams were not military operations, but conducted and experienced as sectarian killings. Most UDR men, like the Grahams, were part-timers, who lived in their communities and worked in ordinary jobs. More than two hundred members or former members of the UDR, and of the Royal Irish Regiment which replaced it, were killed during the Troubles. The vast majority of them – 162 out of 204 – were off-duty at the time. One in five of them, indeed, had actually left the UDR. They were not heavily armed and uniformed combatants, on patrol or manning checkpoints. They were delivering letters, feeding cattle, serving in shops, driving school buses, working on building sites or sitting in their own kitchens or living-rooms.

Many, like David McQuillan, Winston McCaughey, Ritchie Latimer, Albert Beacom, Robert Bennett, Thomas Loughran and James McFall were with their children when they were attacked. William Gordon’s 10-year-old-daughter, Lesley, and seven-year-old son, Richard, were beside him in the family car when an IRA booby-trap bomb exploded. He and Lesley were killed; Richard was blown out onto the footpath and seriously injured. Tommy Bullock was watching television with his wife when she answered the door to the IRA gunmen who had come for him. They killed her, stepped over her body, then went inside and killed him. Sean Russell’s 10-year-old daughter was injured by the bullets that killed him as they watched television together. Victor Foster’s girlfriend was blinded by the booby-trap bomb that killed him. They were both 18 years old. She left Northern Ireland shortly afterwards, having been repeatedly taunted when she went to the shops in the border town of Strabane. One man asked her the difference between a Twix bar and Victor Foster. When she didn’t answer, he told her that a Twix lasted longer.

Protestants have been told, rightly, that their religious and political attitudes contributed to the twisted mentalities of the Loyalist killers who murdered Catholics throughout the Troubles. Because those killings were categorised as sectarian, no one could argue with any seriousness that they were not, in some sense, manifestations of a wider bigotry that was itself the product of political, cultural and historical forces. But Catholics have been insulated from the need to confront the same truths by the notion that the UDR men killed by the IRA were only incidentally Protestant. Catholic sectarianism does not need to be confronted because it does not exist. Thus, while Sinn Féin demands – often justly – public inquiries and accountability for the murders of Catholics by Loyalists or the forces of the state, it does not understand why such accountability might apply to itself.

But people know very well that the sheer cruelty of the murders of the Graham brothers, of Tommy Bullock’s wife and William Gordon’s daughter, and the taunting of Victor Foster’s girlfriend, had little to do with an imperial war machine. It was local, specific and intimate. The dead were neighbours in the small towns and villages of the borderlands. It was the familiarity of their routines, the ease of knowing where they lived and worked, that made them so easy to kill. Most people know, or think they know, who the killers were, even though, in the majority of cases, no one has ever been brought to trial. And the killers and those who cheered them on still mingle with the families of their victims. They can bear it only by keeping alive the notion that what happened was the result of a war, and by imagining that war as a conflict between implacably opposed tribes. Darren Graham restored the intimacy to the Troubles by having, like so many others, affiliations on both sides of the supposedly impermeable divide. He had the temerity to punch through the tribal stereotype by playing Gaelic football and not defining himself simply as a Protestant. It took the hate that dares not speak its name to make him one now.