The British army and the RUC remained in the background, snapping away with their cameras. It was 1 PM, Easter Sunday, when we left Beechmount Avenue for Milltown Cemetery and the annual Belfast commemoration to honour Ireland's patriotic dead.
Those marching next, the Workers Party, continued to style themselves the 'Official' Republican Movement though they had been overtaken after the IRA split in 1969 by the 'Provisionals', with whom I was associated.
After that split both sides often clashed, almost always in Belfast, and not just with fisticuffs. Many activists and supporters had been shot dead as one side or the other asserted itself in violent, demoralising feuds. Bitterness ran deep. Entire families were divided. Small ghetto communities which considered themselves outside of, and at war with, the Northern Ireland state were polarised within: there was a segregation which took the form of rival clubs, pubs, newspapers, political wings, commemorations. We both sang the old songs but these were quickly-outnumbered by new ballads reflecting the latest phase of struggle.
The Officials were to split again and feud with an emerging new faction in 1974/75 when the Irish Republican Socialist Party allied to the Irish National Liberation Army were formed. The extremely volatile IRSP/INLA subsequently experienced several more bloody splits and feuds, and the Officials further divisions, which effectively rendered all the derivative organisations politically impotent. The mainstream Republican Movement, including Sinn Fein as it is now constituted, and the IRA, emerged as the strongest and most resilient of all militant republican organisations. But it too suffered several losses with the formation of Republican Sinn Fein in 1986, and the 'Real IRA' in 1997 in opposition to the peace process, but no violent feuding.
However, on this particular Easter Sunday, twenty-three years ago, and just seventeen months after the last Official/Provisional IRA feud had left eleven dead in Belfast, the Officials assembled in the streets we had just vacated.
The explosion that we heard from Milltown Cemetery was fairly muffled. Looking over the gravestones towards mid-Falls I could see a cloud of black smoke rising. A bomb planted outside a disused bakery in Beechmount Avenue exploded among Official supporters. It killed 10-year-old Kevin McMenamin, whose father was a Workers Party member, and blew the leg off another young boy. It was about twenty minutes before rumours reached us about children being killed and people wounded by shrapnel. Knowing that my wife had stayed behind to watch the second parade along with our infant son I was frantic, rushed out of the cemetery, found a house with a telephone and rang a neighbour. They were okay, I was relieved to hear, and hadn't been in the vicinity of the explosion. But, I was told, the Officials - needless-to-say - were incandescent with anger.
As the ambulances picked up the casualties the Officials, unbowed, decided to proceed with their commemoration and marched to the cemetery. They were coming through the gates of Milltown Cemetery just as those attending the first commemoration were streaming out. It was very tense. There was pushing and shoving, insults and punches traded. Then, some of their members, either in panic or for self-defence, produced guns and started shooting, mostly over the heads of their rivals. Miraculously, no one was killed but a young republican supporter was grazed in the head.
IRA activists armed themselves and yet another feud erupted. Before it was clearly established that the bomb had been planted by loyalists, before clerical mediators could broker a cease-fire, Kevin McMenamin's uncle, John Short, was shot dead on the Springfield Road by the IRA.
Given the cease-fire, the thaw in the political climate, changed times, it is now possible to talk freely to former opponents about the emotions and factors that gave rise to deadly feuds.
Most splits were triggered in reaction to leaderships changing strategy and shifting ideological ground, and most feuds were initiated by leaderships who could not handle challenge and dissidence. The various splits need never have been so internecine. Fear, suspicion, mistrust, paranoia, lack of communication, but especially the demonisation of 'the other side', contributed to the downward spiral which ended in hostilities.
At a macro level, involving the British, the unionists, loyalist paramilitaries, the Republican Movement and dissident republican groups, it is important to persistently engage in dialogue, to listen and to realise, above all, the humanity of the people who frustrate, anger, threaten and even attack you. There are times that for nations or parts of nations conflict will be inevitable, but there are many, many other times that tragedy and loss of life, can and should be avoided, through the exercise of a little less stubbornness.
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison