(by Danny Morrison, Sunday Tribune)
Last Sunday in Belfast republicans walked silently through a republican area and to the republican plot in Milltown cemetery to honour an IRA Volunteer, Tom Williams, who was hanged in 1942 for trying to establish that very right to commemorate one’s dead.
It was a cold but sunny afternoon and many pensioners, who would have been young people when 19-year-old Williams was sentenced to death, sat in chairs at the side of the Falls Road to watch the biggest procession seen in West Belfast since the funerals of Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage who were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar.
I went as an Irish republican, but in another very personal sense I wanted to represent a link with the past, an uncle of mine, the late Harry White, a Belfast IRA man of the ’Forties, who was sentenced to death in the South but reprieved. On Sunday I saw former members of the Workers Party, people with INLA connections, members of Republican Sinn Féin and sympathisers of republican dissidents among the crowd, the overwhelming majority of whom were supporters of the Republican Movement.
Laying Tom Williams to rest represented a kind of closure, just as the release of all the political prisoners will allow us to draw a line through the past and move forward. Move permanently away from repression, discrimination and armed struggle, and towards justice and equality.
Tom Williams killed RUC Constable Patrick Murphy. But that killing had none of the wilfulness of the most typical IRA operations against the RUC during the last thirty years of conflict. That killing - a tragedy for Murphy’s family and for Williams’ - was pathetic, given the issue behind the republican operation on Easter Sunday 1942. Since the partition of Ireland 20 years earlier, all republican parades had been banned. In contrast, the Orange Order was allowed to march on the Falls Road, and did. The republican plan was to fire over the heads of an RUC patrol, draw reinforcements into the Clonard area, away from the Falls Road so that republicans at Milltown cemetery could march to the republican plot without being batoned into the ground.
The RUC certainly gave chase and Constable Murphy followed the escaping IRA unit into a house and was shot dead. Williams was wounded three times by Murphy. All six young republicans appeared before Judge Edward Murphy, a former Deputy Grand Master in the Orange Order, on a charge of murder and the jury found them guilty. Five were reprieved, including Joe Cahill and John Oliver (who were on the platform last Sunday) and Williams was hanged.
Williams and Murphy died simply because unionists could not tolerate nationalists and republicans having a past, a present or future. But unionism couldn’t suppress nationalists forever. We went from civil rights to armed struggle to military stalemate to peace process. In order to secure civil rights and equality (the achievement of which actually negates the raison d’être of partition), republicans compromised and signed the Belfast Agreement.
However, many unionists still display deep hostility and intolerance. For example, the St Patrick’s Day Festival in Belfast has been deprived of funding by City Hall because the Tricolour will be carried. And look at the reaction to the Sinn Féin presence at the Williams’ commemoration.
It was ‘a calculated insult’ to unionists, they claimed, in the very week that major changes in policing was announced. Sinn Féin had no say in the timing of this announcement nor in the release of Williams’ remains for which the National Graves Association had been lobbying for years. And the subtext of the opposition to police reform is clear - nationalists should have no say.
Two weeks ago First Minister David Trimble paid his respects to the family of Richard James, UVF leader of Portadown, killed by the LVF. Many Ulster Unionists attended the funeral. Mr Trimble also engaged in talks with LVF leader Billy Wright whilst refusing to meet with Sinn Féin. Years ago, Ian Paisley and Nigel Dodds went to the wake of UVF leader John Bingham and Ulster Unionist MP Cecil Walker walked in the cortege which was led by a UVF guard-of-honour. Does the thought ‘double standards’, and the mentality that such standards represent, ever strike unionists?
And what part of Gerry Adams’ speech in the cemetery was it that they disagreed with? When he said: ‘We know there are brave people on all sides of any conflict including this one . . . we also understand how the family of an RUC officer can be grieved or of a British soldier can be grieved’? Or when he said, ‘It strikes me that if there truly is to be a healing process then there has to be an understanding of the equivalence of grief . . . That to pretend, as elements of the media do, and as the political establishment does, that republican Volunteers have not got families, have not got loved ones, have not got feelings, is part of the open wound that yet has to be healed as part of any conflict resolution process’?