Jude Whyte (Northern Ireland)

“Most people don’t ever forgive because they see it as stampeding on the memory of their loved ones.”

Photo by Katalin Karolyi

Jude Whyte was born in Belfast in 1957 to Catholic parents.  After the sectarian conflict started in the late 1960s, several of his seven siblings left for England but Jude remained in Belfast, taking a Sociology degree and getting married.  In April 1984 his life changed forever when his mother, a part-time taxi driver, was killed in a bomb blast outside the family home.

I had no real inkling that I lived in an abnormal society until the student civil rights protests started at the end of our road in the 1960s.  My mother used to say they were all trouble makers. Even though she was Catholic she was a fan of the British state which had brought her ‘child benefit’ and free education. In no way were we a hotbed of radicals. In fact every night after dinner we’d turn the telly off, get down on our knees and say the rosary.

In 1969 the violence escalated and before we knew it people were dying and Belfast imploded in sectarian violence.  When internment was introduced and people – mostly Catholics – were detained without trial there was virtually a civil war.

By the time I went to grammar school, every afternoon after school I’d put my bag behind a bin and go and fight the British Army with bricks and bottles. It became a normal part of growing up. The fear started when I saw a young fellow die next to me, hit by a battery fired from a gun. Then on September 5th 1971 a member of the UDR (the legal regiment of the British army) stopped me in the street to ask what my father’s name was. When I told him he said he was going to kill my father because he was obviously a fenian (a derogatory term for a Catholic). I asked why and he said “because we hate fenians.” They saw me, in my school uniform, as the enemy. That was the day my childhood ended.

The first time our home was bombed was in 1983 by a young Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) man who lived a mile away. When he blew himself up it was my mother who comforted him and told me to get a pillow for under his head. If I’ve ever seen a victim in my life it was him. He was alone and cold with only my mother to help him.

A part of me thought the UVF wouldn’t come back because we’d saved this man’s life, but they did and this time they made no mistake.  When my mother spotted the bomb on the window ledge outside the sitting room she called the Police.  Unfortunately it exploded as she was opening the door, killing both her and the young police officer, Michael Dawson, who’d come to investigate.

The Police were basically our enemy but my mother had taught me to reach out to those in need and one of the first things I did was go to the house of the young Police officer to offer our condolences.  It was the beginning of the journey I’m now on.

In those days there was no counselling or trauma advice and initially I was full of bile and hatred.  I was a bad father, a bad husband and a bad lecturer.  My thoughts were only of revenge and I could feel the bitterness eating me up.  Eventually I had a nervous breakdown and knew I had to change.

Forgiveness was for me both a pragmatic decision and an emotional feeling – it had nothing to do with religion.  It meant that I lived a lot easier, I slept a lot better.  You could say my revenge for the murder of my mother is my forgiveness because it has given me strength. I don’t forgive on behalf of my mother but for the pain that was inflicted on me for the loss of my mother.  And while my mother may not have given me permission to forgive, she did tell me to get a pillow for the UVF man who tried to blow us up.

Although there is very little forgiveness in Northern Ireland we have made remarkable progress. We are still a toxic society but we are not a violent society.  However, people like me are part of the problem. I was never a member of the IRA and I never held a gun but still when Protestants were killed I stood by.  Because I only protested when my own community were hurt, I’m as guilty as those who committed acts of violence.

I believe the only way to reconcile is to get to the truth and the only way we can do that is if we have a general amnesty for everyone on both sides.  It would mean no one going to prison for what they did in the past.  This would create the conditions for accountability where people feel safe enough to talk.  I know that many people want the perpetrators to go to jail but the trouble is even if they are convicted, under the Good Friday Agreement the maximum sentence they would ever serve is just two years.

I still know a lot of people for whom the totality of their existence is the events that happened several decades ago.  Many are still broken and most people won’t ever forgive because they see it as stampeding on the memory of their loved ones.