13 March 2006

Why hate us? asks brother of UVF victims

Daily Ireland

This man was hit by the stark contrast of the media’s handling of IRA and loyalist killings. He also asks why Facing the Truth did not probe the widespread hatred of Catholics in the North.

By Mick Hall

There has been much talk recently about truth, forgiveness and reconciliation in the North. The three-part BBC television series Facing the Truth brought together victims’ families and the perpetrators of the victims’ deaths in an attempt to reach a point of genuine repentance and possible forgiveness.
During the series, Michael Stone apologised to the family of Dermott Hackett, one of the loyalist’s victims.
Stone, while seemingly repentant, still maintained his loyal “soldier” status.
He had been simply carrying out the unofficial will of the British state.
Stone was certainly used as a proxy agent in Britain’s covert policy of employing loyalist death squads in its fight against republicans.
However, Stone’s clinical, self-serving appraisal of his actions raised many questions — questions that were not asked by the discussion facilitator, the South African bishop Desmond Tutu, and which the format of the programme did not facilitate.
Loyalist violence, although serving a specific counter- insurgency purpose during the conflict, was largely motivated by an intense, frightening sectarian hatred within a section of the loyalist/unionist community.
This communal hatred was largely absent from within the nationalist communities — something the BBC has never admitted.
Indeed, on occasions when this has been publicly stated, fierce reaction has caused a speedy retraction.
Irish president Mary McAleese’s comments comparing indoctrination against Jews in Nazi Germany to the attitude of some Protestants towards Catholics in the North and similar comments by the Redemptorist priest Alex Reid last year are notable examples.
Relatives of loyalist and state violence watching would have been only too aware of the painful inadequacy of the BBC coverage last week.
Many would have asked why one family’s suffering was being exposed to the glare of the media stoplight while their own family’s experience remained hidden.
Gerard McErlane, a 54-year-old from Poleglass on the outskirts of west Belfast, was one such relative.
“After watching the BBC show, I phoned several radio and television producers and asked what criteria they used to decide which families would feature on their programmes. Not one of them could give me an answer,” he said.
On May 23, 1975, Gerard McErlane’s 29-year-old brother John and 19-year-old brother Thomas were shot dead in Mount Vernon in north Belfast by Ulster Volunteer Force members.
The two brothers had been playing cards with work associates in a flat when two gunmen burst in and ordered the occupants to lie face down on the floor.
John and Thomas McErlane were shot twice in the head.
Gerard McErlane said: “I can still vividly remember what they looked like when I saw them afterwards — the colour of their nails, the way their hair was combed, the shoes they were wearing.
“The murders left me numb.
“I had just married one month before the shootings and, when I look at my wedding photos, it seems like yesterday I saw them last.”
Looking back, the most haunting experience of Gerard McErlane’s life was watching his mother suffer in grief until she died of cancer, 28 years after the murders.
“It was the hardest thing for me.
“My father died eight years after the deaths.
“My mother lived on and never celebrated a thing in her life afterwards.
“There were no Christmases, no birthdays and not much sleep — only absence and pain.
“She never suffered physically from the cancer that killed her. What I saw in her face before the final breath was the similar expression of grief.
“I was relieved for her. It would have been easier if she had died with them,” he said.
“After 30 years of feeling numb, I began asking questions.
“A part of me that had been deadened was brought to life last year and, although I have no hatred or bitterness for those who killed my brothers, the frustration has sometimes proven too much. I pray a lot and it has helped.”
Gerard McErlane’s numbness cleared after the murder of Robert McCartney, killed in January last year after a brawl in a Belfast bar.
“Our family grew up in the Short Strand, where Robert’s mother and father lived. They were good people.
“After Robert died, the McCartney family received more publicity in three days than we received in 30 years.
“When I started thinking about how the media and politicians manipulate families’ feelings, highlighting one murder while ignoring others to suit a political agenda, it made me feel ill,” he said.
The comparison that Gerard McErlane drew between the McCartney murder and his two brothers’ fate added to the hurt.
“Robert was murdered after a bar brawl.
“John was persuaded, over many months, to go to the card school in Mount Vernon. Thomas was also persuaded to go after nothing happened to John for the first number of months.
“But once they both went, they were murdered,” he said.
In February 1978, a 22-year-old man from Rathcoole, already serving an 11-year term for armed robberies, was convicted and given two life sentences for the murders.
A second man was convicted for the two brothers’ murders and for the murder of a third man.
“There was more than two people involved in that murder, and no one else has ever been charged,” Gerard McErlane said.
If he had an opportunity to meet the killers, the retired Housing Executive officer said he would look into their eyes and ask them one thing: “Do you ever think about what you did? Are you ever haunted at night by their faces, the way my mother was until she died?”
Gerard McErlane doubts whether the killers ever showed remorse but is thankful the deaths were quick.
“They probably went to the pub, watched it on the news and congratulated themselves on a job well down.
“For them, they were just two less taigs to deal with.
“But the deaths were quick, unlike those who died at the hands of the Shankill butchers.
“Many Catholics were taken back to ‘romper rooms’ in loyalist clubs and tortured slowly to death.
“I’m thankful that didn’t happen,” he said.
Gerard McErlane is still disturbed by the nature of loyalist violence.
“When Fr Reid and Mary McAleese said what they said about the way Catholics have been treated, they were revealing the truth.
“Catholics were not brought up to hate like that,” he said.
Asked whether it would help if this was recognised in wider society, he said: “Anything that reveals the truth surrounding my brothers’ killings would help.
“What happened was evil, and a society that harbours evil instead of engaging its legacy serves only to prolong the pain.”
Last year, Gerard McErlane met representatives of the Republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs with a view to meeting senior members of the Southern state regarding the murders.
He has yet to receive a reply to his request.
“My family was not the only family that has suffered.
“I would be happy to be part of a big delegation.
“I feel a truth won for one family is a truth won for all families imprisoned in the past,” he said.

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