One of the leading campaigners for the rights of victims in Northern Ireland has issued a stark warning that the return of a hard border post-Brexit will re-ignite the violence which scarred and destroyed so many lives.
Despite 20 years of peace, Stephen Travers of the Miami Showband believes that Northern Ireland is on the brink of chaos and that bickering over the border with the Republic could see a return to the conflict which killed 3,600 people and injured thousands more over three decades.
The Miami Showband minibus with five members in all was stopped at a bogus army checkpoint in Northern Ireland and three were killed and two, including Travers, badly injured in July 1975. It was a sensational story at the time.
“People living along the border from both traditions, people who never wanted anything to do with violence or sectarianism, are telling me now that they are beginning to realize that there will be a hard border there unless Britain stays within the customs union,” he said.
“These are farmers, ordinary people who have invested a lot in their farms and communities. One man told me he would run a JCB [digger] through the border if they put checkpoints up again. Another man said something that was quite eerie. He had never been violent or anything like that before, but he said he would look the other way when the shooting starts.
“I’m hearing these kinds of comments now all the time when I travel around. People are talking about revenge. They are not talking about compromise, they are talking about victory. There are people there who didn’t want the peace process in the first place and the hawks, including those in the security forces, who said that it would never work.” Travers told IrishCentral this week.
He is also deeply disturbed by the rhetoric of pro-Brexit politicians in Britain, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, whose desire to leave the European Union (EU) and blame Europe for Britain’s problems means they care little for the impact their language has on the lives of ordinary Irish people.
The guitarist has first-hand knowledge of how bad things were as he was on a minibus containing five members of the Miami Showband when it was flagged down at what appeared to be a British military checkpoint on July 31, 1975.
The members of the hugely popular group, both Catholics and Protestants, were returning home to Dublin from a concert in Banbridge, Co Down.
Members of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) attempted to load a bomb onto the musicians’ bus, to have it explode as they drove home – a move which was planned to implicate the band members in ‘The Troubles’ and force the Irish Government to seal up the border and increase checkpoints on the southern side.
But two of the UVF men were killed by their own bomb before they planted it in the musicians’ van and instead they shot three members of the band dead on the quiet country road.
Guitarist Travers and singer and saxophone player Des Lee were wounded in the atrocity, which shocked music fans all over Ireland, but they managed to survive.
Allegations of collusion between the British Army and the loyalist terrorists have surrounded the case for the past 43 years and the release of declassified documents earlier this year included a letter from the UVF which showed that the killers had been given the bomb by members of the security forces.
Travers’ work with a group called the Truth and Reconciliation Platform (TARP) brings him to border communities every week and he is disturbed by the anger and pessimism he hears from people living along the front line.
"People can dismiss it as scare-mongering. The reality is one of the great characteristics of politics today is that people can tell lies and that society accepts them. I had a feeling that the arguments put forward by the Brexiteers would resonate. They were looking for scapegoats and they could blame the European Union for all their problems.”
Travers has accused pro-Brexit politicians of “irresponsible and dangerous” language and said that some of them had a vested interest in a hard border, to maintain divisions and secure Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom after Britain leaves the EU.
“The important thing now is that people can listen to the victims from all sides, that they are given a forum to talk. If you do it in public, and you have them standing together, it is of great value to society and people can learn from the mistakes of the past,” he told Irish Central.
“If you tell any of these stories in isolation, they can be used as a stick to beat the other side. And that’s what’s happening, through an irresponsible press, media, and irresponsible politics. It’s simply that these British politicians have no regard for human life. To talk about a return to a hard border in the wake of Brexit is totally irresponsible and dangerous.”
The border, which stretches along 300 miles, was the scene of watchtowers, British Army checkpoints, and lengthy searches until the 1990s. Travers is concerned that younger people have no idea of just how bad life was in border communities before the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to the island in 1998.
Travers has been frustrated by the refusal of the British security forces, to tell the truth for over four decades, and he has joined with other victims’ groups to set up the non-sectarian Truth and Reconciliation Platform (TARP), who allow survivors to travel around Ireland to tell their stories from ‘The Troubles’.
His work in border communities has disturbed Travers in recent months, as he has heard a lot of frustration and anger among people who are bitterly opposed to the prospect of a return to a hard border between the North and the Republic of Ireland.
He believes their voices are not being heard in the mainstream media in Ireland – and certainly not in Britain, where a debate rages over the terms of Britain’s ‘divorce’ from the European Union with little or no concern for those who live along the Irish border.
He said that World Trade Organisation rules would see a return to a hard border, complete with checkpoints and military outposts, even if the EU did not insist on it.
“I believe that when you put a border up, you have to have a man with a uniform patrolling it and stopping people. The minute somebody stands with a uniform, somebody can take a pot shot at them. Then the police will come down to protect them, and the army, and we will have 1969 all over again.”
Travers said it’s so important that the victims of ‘The Troubles’ go into the schools to tell the 11- and 12-year-olds about the suffering they experienced. He believes Northern Ireland should have had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, just like South Africa, to ensure there would never be a return to the dark days of violence.
He finds that young people today in Northern Ireland have no memory of how awful life was during the 30 years of killings and bombings. He feels it is so important that children meet victims of violence from the ‘other side’ so that they can ‘humanize’ those who come from across the divide.
“With TARP, we have a schools project with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. We allow people from both sides to stand up and tell their stories. When people from both sides tell their stories of loss, we convince them that neither side has a monopoly on loss or suffering,” he said.
“People are telling us to talk to the 11- and 12-year-olds, because they are the ones who will be out on the streets, throwing stones. They are the ones who are being radicalized. They have no experience of what it’s like to live in a conflict zone.”
The victims of atrocities such as Bloody Sunday, Loughinisland, and the Miami Showband Massacre have found it almost impossible to get the truth from the British authorities, but Travers said it was also important to listen to the victims of IRA terror or the families of security force members who were murdered during ‘The Troubles.’
“We give people an opportunity to tell their stories. It’s very, very important that society is educated about this. We make it very clear is that we are not here to lecture the students, to tell them that they should or shouldn’t use violence. But we tell them that these are the consequences if they do choose violence and then we just tell our stories,” he said.
“The truth is that a lot of people in Northern Ireland are not in a place of forgiveness. There are people up there who were never touched by violence or never heard the voices from the other side and they are talking about revenge.”
Travers finds it particularly disgusting that British politicians who have little understanding of life in Northern Ireland during three decades of violence could be so quick to make flippant remarks about a return to border inspections and checkpoints.
He believes that the kind of people who were prepared to ‘plant’ a bomb on the members of a popular cross-community showband still have an interest in stoking the flames of tension between the two communities in Northern Ireland.
“With the impetus that’s going to be given by sticking in a hard border there, the last Troubles of 1969 will be like a garden party compared to what could happen in the future,” said Travers.
“Brexit is a way of sealing the border and trying to keep the Republic out of the North’s affairs. The reason the Miami was hit was to frame these innocent commuters and force the southern Government to have a more stringent ‘stop and search’ policy on the south side of the border. That bomb was planted on us because they wanted the Gardai to stop people every time they crossed that border.”
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook here.