“Blatant lies were told. Campaigners were sometimes seen as obsessive. That put huge pressure on mental health and on relationships,” he continued. “Institutions – whether in state, church or non-state actors – tell stories of their own heroism. And that makes it very hard for them to admit the presence of sin in their ranks.”
“People are crushed when institutions or organisations lie to preserve their reputation,” said McKeown. “We still have much truth to discover about many other deaths. Many people still know truths that they are reluctant to share.”
More than 3,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were injured in the period known as The Troubles, from the late 1960s through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There were riots, violent attacks, bombings, and retaliation from predominantly Protestant unionist and predominantly Catholic nationalist paramilitary groups, as well as involvement from the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force and the British military.
McKeown said the people deserve “an agreed system that creates space for the truth to be told about the thousands of unsolved murders.”
“Drawing a line under the past always suits those who have much to hide,” he continued. “Today we remember those whose lives were lost by brutal violence - and all those who suffered terribly because of the lies that were told.”
It is “very difficult” to find peace with the past, the bishop continued. “(O)ur societies struggle to know how they remember unsavoury chapters in their history. How do we deal with slavery and colonialism, the treatment of those who offended against society’s morals and the banishment of the poor to Australia for stealing food or a handkerchief?”
He rejected the idea that the “flames of rage” and the “fire of anger” will cleanse wounds. Similarly, he challenged the attitudes of those who “want to let sleeping dogs lie and prefer not to grapple with uncomfortable truths that might disturb our comfort in the present.”
Rather, the bishop endorsed a way that “seeks to acknowledge the past but to have compassion and forgiveness for those who were caught up in systems and situations that they can now look at with other eyes.”
“There is a grace-filled art in forgiving and remembering,” he said. “It takes a wise heart to look at the rubble of what has been shattered in the past and to make it into a foundation for the future. If all we do with the past is to use it as a heap of angry stones to throw at other people, then we cannot build.”
McKeown praised the “great dignity and courage” of the residents of Derry, saying they were often an example for Northern Ireland.
“The suffering endured has borne the seed of solidarity and not merely of anger,” he said. The dignity of the people means that we do not look like a post-conflict society. Music and community have enabled the population to be known for its welcome and great stories. This is a city that can look back with compassion on the past.”
(Story continues below)
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“For it is a town that we all love so well,” said the bishop, alluding to the popular song of local singer-songwriter Phil Coulter.
St. Colmcille is traditionally the founder of Derry, and McKeown closed his homily with a prayer of the saint: “Be a bright light before me, O God, a guiding star above me. A smooth path below me a kindly shepherd behind me today, tonight and for ever.”
Among other events of the Troubles that have been revisited is the three-day 1971 incident in west Belfast known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. In May 2021 a new inquiry ruled that a Catholic priest, a mother of eight, and at least seven other civilians were wrongly killed by British soldiers in a climate of unrest and disorder after the introduction of internment without trial.
The inquiry resulted in an apology from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The U.K. government is considering an amnesty for military veterans of the Troubles, which would end any investigations into allegations of unlawful killings by state forces and paramilitary groups. Backers of the move portray it as a step to reconciliation, while some victims and their families have objected.
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.