Kathleen Gillespie is replaying the night she and her children were held hostage by the IRA. She remembers sitting in a corner of her living room, with her daughter on her lap, as her husband, Patsy, kissed them goodbye under the watch of IRA gunmen. She remembers what he said, too: “Everything will be alright, girl. I’ll be home soon.”
You can hear the moment it dawns on me. “So this is where it happened,” I say into my Dictaphone. “This is where it happened,” Kathleen replies. We are sitting, in August 2021, in the same living room in Derry where she and her children were held at gunpoint by the IRA in October 1990.
Patsy never came home. He was chained to the steering wheel and foot pedals of a van filled with 1,200 pounds of explosives, and forced at gunpoint to drive into a nearby British army base. The IRA remotely detonated the bomb, blowing up Patsy and five soldiers, and badly injuring 27 more. Kathleen, a tiny, fierce Derry woman, is now one of Northern Ireland’s most arresting peace and reconciliation campaigners.
I had heard the story of Patsy’s brutal murder retold only a few days before, while sitting hundreds of miles away, in the press gallery of the House of Commons. Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced his plans to introduce a “statute of limitations” – an effective amnesty – for all killings during the Troubles. “Will the Secretary of State come with me and explain to [Patsy’s] widow Kathleen why he wants to protect his killers from prosecution and even investigation?” Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP, asked Lewis, the tension and emotion palpable.
This was one of the biggest decisions to be taken in relation to where I’m from since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. I counted how many people present on the green benches or in the gallery were from Northern Ireland: just five. I felt the privilege, and the responsibility, of being there to bear witness to it. I knew I wanted properly to tell the story of this landmark legislation, which cut off a route to criminal justice for victims of the Troubles forever.
It was the beginning of a journey that has lasted nearly a year. It began at the New Statesman while I was political correspondent, and ends in my new role, hosting the Westminster Insider podcast from Politico. I went from Lewis’s announcement home to Northern Ireland, meeting Kathleen and other victims, and speaking to the leaders of all the main parties. Nearly a year on, the legislation is only now being introduced. After fierce opposition, it’s been modified to make immunity conditional on cooperation with an information recovery body. But it remains controversial.
This is the story of the pain of Kathleen, and thousands like her. It is also the story of Northern Ireland itself since the peace was brokered – its serious, often dysfunctional politics in the wake of decades of terror. I am lucky to be a child of the Good Friday Agreement, from a generation who grew up in Northern Ireland without knowing the sound of a bomb. My early childhood was peppered with Forrest Gump-style cameos from world leaders: Bill Clinton addressed a crowd in Belfast in 1995 when I was a few months old, strapped to my mum’s chest. Aged three, I met Cherie Blair and Mo Mowlam when the former popped into my daycare to spend a penny during a visit to a park next door, in the happy aftermath of the peace agreement. The Troubles were in the past: a story told on murals around the city.
Working on this story changed my understanding of that past. I had goosebumps interviewing Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief negotiator with the IRA, when he described how the peace deal nearly didn’t happen. But the most meaningful part was meeting Kathleen Gillespie and others like her. The Troubles aren’t just something in the past, but a living and ongoing grief and trauma that is still carried by thousands of people across these islands, unresolved.
Ailbhe Rea is the host of the “Westminster Insider” podcast from Politico. Tracey Thorn is on sabbatical
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special