A letter from Doug and Elaine Baker in Northern Ireland
February 20, 2009
Recently Elaine and I hosted an 80th birthday party for a dear friend. Maura became something of an additional grandmother for our children when they were young. A frequent and favorite babysitter in those early years, our family and Maura have watched each other grow older and helped each other out in various ways over the years.
In 1975, before we knew her, Maura’s son was killed. He was a student in university, shot by Loyalist paramilitaries in a random sectarian attack on worshippers outside a Catholic church. Soon after that happened Maura began visiting other families who had been bereaved through the fighting here. As a result of encounters with several who felt a need like her to meet with those who understood what they were going through, she formed the Cross Group.
We first got to know each other in the late 1970s when the Cross Group came to the Corrymeela Centre, where we were then working. For several years these remarkable widows, children, parents and siblings of individuals killed by the illegal IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries or by the state security forces came each year to Corrymeela for a holiday break. The children whose play we supervised then are mostly parents themselves now. The teenagers whose antics we kept a watchful eye on now have grown children of their own. And the widows and mothers whose painful experiences we first heard shared over late night cups of tea way back then have borne their grief for nearly three decades more. Several have since died through cancer or old age, a couple have remarried or moved away and built new lives in other settings. Most have continued to live in this context where each new death or each new debate about how to move forward politically has the potential to open up the wound of their own grief. They have done so with great dignity, and often with remarkable forgiveness. Like Maura, a couple of the others remain friends whom we enjoy catching up with from time to time. One of them is Mary, whose husband was shot dead by the IRA in 1977, leaving her with eight children aged 4 to 16 to raise on her own. Since Mary is one of Maura’s closest friends from the Cross Group, we naturally invited her to the party.
A few days before the party a panel of seven civic leaders appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to examine how this society can deal with the past issued their report. This “Consultative Group on the Past “ made recommendations on how to address the needs of those bereaved and injured during “the Troubles,” how to recover information about what actually happened during those years, how to deal with murders where no one had ever been charged and how to foster the kind of societal healing that’s necessary in moving from a dirty and bitter past to some form of shared and reconciled future. Their report is the fruit of more than 18 months of intense listening to those with diverse experience of and perspectives on the Troubles. (You can read it at the the Web site of the Consultative Group for the Past or check out a summary on our Web page.
At the press conference when the report was launched there were angry protests from some victims groups and political factions. Over the next few days, media coverage of and debates about the report brought back into focus many painful memories from the years of fighting. Because the report puts forward some controversial proposals, there were many heated exchanges, and the panel members who had spent hundreds of hours seeking to present a helpful and balanced report were denounced by a spectrum of critics. All of that reaction revealed how long a journey is still ahead for this society moving out of — but nowhere near yet rid of — conflict.
Back to the birthday party. After dinner, I sat on a sofa between Maura and Mary. Before long one of them brought up the Consultative Group’s report. The other wasn’t really interested in discussing it and kept gently trying to change the subject. When details about various proposals were mentioned, I mostly sat silent, conscious that I was in the presence of two women who had far more right to hold opinions about them than I do. As this discussion continued, what struck me was how often their opinions were not simply different but almost opposite. Two members of the same victims group, who have been dear friends for 30 years and know the intimate details of each other’s suffering and the journeys they have been forced to undertake. Nonetheless, it seems there is little in the report they agree about, including the basic question of whether it is better simply to draw a line on the past and move on or essential that the past be examined and exposed in order to build the future on some greater common understanding of what actually happened. If you can’t find broad agreement between these two, how can you possibly find common ground between the dozens of diverse victims groups that have been formed here or the wider political groupings that have been and remain part of this conflict?
This is but one of the many troubling questions that our neighbors work and wrestle with day after day, year after year. It is enough at times to make you want to stick your head in the sand and ignore them. But incredible women like Maura and Mary deserve more from the rest of us. As do those who suffer because of conflict in so many other settings. The vivid memories of what happened are with them every day, not just on those days when events make it headline news for the rest of us.
Please remember them and all who work for healing in this society and around the globe in your prayers.
Doug and Elaine Baker
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 171