Alan McBride’s personal journey is well known, but remarkable nonetheless. It was in 1993 that his wife Sharon and her father Desmond Frizzell were killed in an IRA bomb attack on the family fish shop in Belfast’s Shankill Road. But with immense dignity, Alan has since dedicated his life to reconciliation and progress, as well as campaigning on behalf of victims. He is the latest interviewee in the Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts.
Alan admits that initially after Sharon died he had to deal with a range of emotions attached to bereavement – guilt, anger, profound sadness and emptiness. But then “I started getting involved, speaking out and getting involved in rallies with an organization called Families Against Intimidation and Terror, who highlighted human rights abuses. They fulfilled a need I had to speak out and to challenge paramilitaries and those that supported them”.
He adds: “I was trying to make sense of everything that was going on.” A lot of his anger was directed against Gerry Adams, who helped carry the body of the dead Shankill Road bomber, Thomas Begley. But his personal story included his father having been a member of the UDA.
“I had this breakthrough moment when I started to think about my own upbringing, and started to think about how many Catholics I knew, the things I had got involved in as a kid – the riots, fires, 12th July celebrations, etc. And I believed the society we had here was abnormal – it was very different from any other part of the United Kingdom. The society itself produced some of the types of things that led to what the people who killed my wife did.
“It wasn’t that I had forgiven them, or gone soft on them, but I sort of understood that if they had grown up in any other part of the United Kingdom they probably wouldn’t have done the things they did. So when I’m thinking about peace and reconciliation and I’m thinking of pointing the finger – the net has to be cast much wider than just those who planted bombs and shot and killed people. The churches are involved. As a young boy I went to church and heard some very sectarian sermons from the pulpit…. I also remember politicians who didn’t give us any sort of leadership. If anything they were compounding our sense of sectarianism.
“To be honest that hasn’t really changed that much in recent times. One of the things I hope that comes out of this coronavirus is that we have a kinder more humane society. The bullshit politics we have had in this country for far too long.”
He adds: “It was when I started to think like that I began to not feel the need to campaign against people like Gerry Adams and paramilitaries and instead involve myself in peace building and tried to engage in dialogue with people I had previously been opposed to and tried to build an understanding with them of where I am coming from.
“These days I see my role as someone who is involved in peace building, advocates a peaceful life, a peaceful society. My criticism is not only for those who were involved in violence to achieve a political end, but also for those who gave them cover. I include in that, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists, not just Sinn Fein, anybody who had any tacit support for paramilitaries – advocating for them, or turning a blind eye as was quite often the case.”
In today’s society, one of the issues we still struggle with is whether all those who died should be treated equally, whether there should be ‘a hierarchy of victims’. “What we have to consider is the families who are left behind,” says Alan. “I just see them as families whose relatives lost their lives in this conflict. But I will say this – I will always challenge the person who tries to put my wife on the same page, in terms of her guilt or her innocence, with [the bombers] Sean Kelly or Thomas Begley. They murdered my wife. They went out that day to commit murder. My wife wasn’t the intended victim – she was just expendable, collateral damage.
“So I won’t put them on the same page. But their families? Absolutely. I will put them on the same page. I suffer just as much as the Kelly family suffers, or the Begley family suffers.” But he recognises there are people who regard them as soldiers in a war. “It’s obviously not an opinion I share… It is not helpful to me at all to say we are all victims in the same way.”
But the trauma today is not restricted to the families who mourn dead relatives. There is also the trauma of people left with profound injuries and disabilities because of events – and the trauma that passes down generations and can be manifested through addictions. It can be “the wider family circle”, stresses Alan.
He is open that his coping mechanism is talking, campaigning, challenging others and seeking peace and reconciliation. “Yet there are others who cope in different ways.” Alan admits that his journey to seek reconciliation was traumatic for his relatives, especially for his mother-in-law. “We have coped in very different ways. And the way I coped had an impact on her.”
Alan adds: “It’s ok not to talk about it, if that’s you and that’s your thing. But if you are going to bed at night and that is the thing stopping you going to sleep, causing you recurring nightmares, then you probably do need at some stage to get that out, to talk about it, get it out into the open.”
This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.