04 Oct 2022

Barney Rowan is 'Living with Ghosts'

‘We need international help to address the question of the past’, says veteran journalist

 Launch of 'Living with Ghosts' by Barney Rowan in Central Library: Colum Eastwod MP, Jenni Doherty (Little Acorns Bookshop), Barney Rowen, Liz Curry (Library Assistant) and Raymond McCartney (ex-MLA)

Launch of 'Living with Ghosts' by Barney Rowan in Central Library: Colum Eastwod MP, Jenni Doherty (Little Acorns Bookshop), Barney Rowen, Liz Curry (Library Assistant) and Raymond McCartney (ex-MLA)

Barney (only his mother calls him Brian) Rowan’s Holywood burr belied his horrific description of the 1992 deaths of Gregory Burns, Aidan Starrs and John Dignam.

The former BBC journalist was reading several excerpts from his new book, Living with Ghosts: the inside story from a ‘Troubles’ mind, in Derry’s Central Library last Thursday.

One of the most moving passages was Barney’s warm description of his convivial and last meeting with the late David Ervine, the Progressive Unionist Party politician who became a friend.

'Living with Ghosts' by journalist Barney Rowen retraces his steps through the North's conflict years

Asked if the ‘good’ relationships built up between politicians during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations were absent today, he acknowledged the 1998 cohort of politicians “had all of the emotional attachment to both the conflict period and the euphoria when we thought we had peace”.

“I can remember when the IRA read the ceasefire statement to me in 1994. It was a woman who read it, and when she read that line that there would be a complete cessation of military operations at midnight that night, I just remember thinking to myself, 'I wonder what that means?'

“And, I suppose, in the euphoria of the moment we thought, 'is this peace?'

“Really what it was, when you think about it now, was the beginning of a long end. It was the beginning of something rather than the end of something.

“I remember that day very well: August 31, 1994. It was my wife's birthday and she was eight months pregnant and our daughter was born between the IRA and the loyalist ceasefires of 1994. She was born in September 1994,” said Barney.

Smiling, he said: “I can remember then the loyalists ringing, saying, 'we need to see you' and I explained, 'my wife's just home with a baby' and they said, 'we'll come to you'.

“So they arrived in Holywood. I met them in the high street and took them to a coffee shop, where they told me that their 'concerns had been addressed' and they would be in touch. I knew that meant the loyalist ceasefire was coming.

“But when I think back to that period of the 1990s, I think of the people who are gone. Martin McGuinness is gone. David Ervine is gone. John Hume is gone. Mo Mowlam is gone. David Trimble is now gone - so many of the people who were critical to the making of the process.

“There were also the people who were the quiet peacemakers, people like Fr Alec Reid, and Brendan Duddy from this parish. They are gone and so, I think, some people with the passing of time have forgotten how bad it was. I think, on occasions, we need to remind people where we were and where we still need to get to. That is still the challenge of today,” said Barney.

Barney Rowan said he believed the ‘war’ was over.

“Do I think there would be a rerun of that conflict period? No, I don't,” he said. “However, there is stuff that we still need to get done. We need to find some way that properly puts the past to rest. We need to get it away from politics.

“I quote Colin Davidson, the artist, in the book. Colin painted the exhibition ‘Silent Testimony’, 18 portraits of people touched by the worst of the conflict period. He painted them as an exhibition, not of the past but of the present, because we still have not addressed many of the questions. 100,000 people went to see his exhibition in the Ulster Museum.

“I think what we need to do to address the question of the past and legacy is to take it away from us and take it away from politics. We need outside international help. We need a report of a conflict and peace period, written with pens free of emotional ink. We are all too close to it. We are stitched into the fabric of this place. We all have very different impressions and truths of what happened. We need that international report. We need to set that alongside people telling their own individual stories and we need a place of remembrance.

“There is the imagination in ‘Silent Testimony’ to create something that becomes a sacred space. I remember someone - I think it was my colleague Eamonn Mallie - who described Colin Davidson's exhibition as 'something like the Stations of the Cross'. People just go, they're silent, they sit, they reflect, they leave, and they take something out of it’.”

Barney pointed out that, for all of the big moments in the peace process, we had needed help from outside.

“For the politics, we needed Senator George Mitchell. For the guns, we needed General de Chastelain. For policing, we needed Chris Patton. And yet, on the two biggest questions that face us, our past and our future, we think we can do it ourselves. We are kidding ourselves if we think that.

“I would argue for an amnesty from this point of view: you cannot have a peace process that releases prisoners and then a past process that creates prisoners.

“I don't mean an amnesty in truth and I don't mean an amnesty in information, but we need to find the way of achieving the maximum amount of information from all of the sides while understanding that we are never going to have absolute truth from any side, never mind all of the sides. That is what I meant when I said we need to stop lying about the truth.

“We need to be more honest about what is achievable and what is not achievable, but I think putting people in jail in 2022, after releasing hundreds of prisoners in that period from 1998 through to 2000, is just an absolute contradiction. In terms of the British approach to it, I think their [Legacy] Bill is about closing down the past rather than opening it up.

“No one side relating to the conflict period should be designing any process which is about answering all of those questions. I think that bill is a house that no one is going to buy,” said Barney.

Barney Rowan said he was optimistic for the future.

“I know what I reported on. I remember the week from the Shankill bomb through to the Greysteel shootings and everything that happened in between it. So when people say to me ‘nothing has changed’ they must be living on another planet.

“Everything has changed. There are still things that need to be done; that's the nature of a process.

“We have done the hard bits and the bits that still need to be done, while they are challenging, are not harder than what we have done already.

“So, how you find a way that puts the past to rest - and I don't mean that in any trite or glib way like drawing a line; there is no line thick enough to draw through or under or over our past - we need to be more creative about a process that might take us to the next stage.

“Then we (and I include myself in this), as the conflict generation, need to let go of this. We need to give it to the next generation. I look at 1994, the ceasefires and 1998, the political agreement, as being for the next generations. and yet we of the conflict generation hold on to them as if we own them. We own the past, we own the ceasefires and we own the political agreement, and in some of that what we have done is that we have made peace a daily grind rather than something you look forward to.

“If we are to imagine something better, we need to give it to the generations who come after us to shape that future and that present. We need to start thinking about 2032 and not 1972,” said Barney.

Turning to contemporary politics, Barney said the Protocol had created an “earthquake” within part of the unionist community.

He explained: “They think they have been sold out by a British Prime Minister, and so for them, it is not just about the trading arrangements; it is that bigger question of Northern Ireland being different than the rest of the UK. Psychologically, that has concerned them and frightened them, but I think if we look at our politics since Brexit, everything is changing.

Pictured at the launch of 'Living with Ghosts' by Barney Rowan in Derry's Central Library: Colum Eastwod MP, Jenni Doherty (Little Acorns Bookshop), Barney Rowen, Liz Curry (Library Assistant) and Raymond McCartney (Foyle MLA retired).

“Brexit is a broken glass. It has shattered and scattered pieces everywhere. If you look at everything electorally since Brexit, unionists have lost their overall majority at Stormont. They lost their second seat in the European Parliament. They no longer hold the majority of Northern Ireland seats at Westminster. Sinn Féin is now the largest party at Stormont and that is a psychological shift.

“We are on a bend in the road. We are in a kind of waiting room. I wonder if we can assess the long-term prospects for political stability before we answer the next big question - union versus unity.

“Until that question is settled - whatever way it is settled - Stormont is always going to be up and down.

“I wrote in my last book that, after Julian Smith and Simon Coveney put it back together again, if Stormont fails again it should fail forever. We can't have broken politics all the time. The peace process was meant to be about politics working; not working sometimes.”

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