Appalling Vistas

In the summer of 1966, a man called John Patrick Scullion was murdered in the Clonard area of West Belfast. It is the first killing of the (modern) Troubles.

He was shot outside his home and died two weeks later. Local people had heard gunshots. But the Royal Ulster Constabulary investigated the murder as a stabbing. A month after his burial, his body was exhumed and it was then determined that he had indeed been shot.

By any policing standards, that is total incompetence. Indeed by any medical standards, that is total incompetence.

So what happened to John Patrick Scullion? Well, a UVF gang led by Gusty Spence had set out to kill a Clonard-based republican, who had been active in organising the West Belfast parade for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Unable to get their target, they settled on shooting Mr Scullion, who had been drunkenly shouting “Up the IRA”.

The UVF had become active in response to Terence O’Neill’s liberal unionism.

I lived quite close to the Clonard area. My wife (then only 8 years old) lived in the Clonard area.

In 1966, I was 14 years old. I was old enough to go with my friends from our “mixed” street to play ad hoc games of football in Falls Park (west Belfast) and Woodvale (north) and Botanic, Ormeau and Lady Dixon (south). My father with memories from the 1930s would caution me to be careful but as a naive and optimistic teen, I knew those bad old days were over. Heck …it was over 30 years ago…ancient history.

Really that first sectarian murder and two more in 1966 did not really change things. It was 1969 before all Hell broke lose.

John Patrick Scullion …murder is murder. But somehow it feels that a shooting being classified as a stabbing is downgrading. Class and sectarianism are inter-mingled in Norn Iron. The worst (non-sectarian) insult from my youth was “you/he/she are/is a Nobody”…..unseen and unimportant. In that sense John Patrick Scullion was a “Nobody”.

Whatever his injuries………stabbing or shot….he was unseen. It did not matter, And the witnesses in Clonard area who heard the gunshots. Invisible. Nobodies.

Of course I was a Nobody also……..albeit a slightly different one who passed the “11 plus”. But my dread of abduction, torture and murder in the 1970s has not gone away. Names and faces from that naive football team or my school or workplace who had that fate haunt me.

I spent decades making myself (and sons and grandchildren) “Somebody”.

In 2013, my best friend, a remarkable historian invited me to Texas for two weeks to talk to her post grads about Conflict Resolution. As the lecture ended, a young man asked me how do young people feel about it all.

I gave a flippant answer that I dont know or understand anyone under forty.

But the real answer is that some young people tell me that everything is different now and other young people tell me that nothing has changed. THEY ARE BOTH WRONG.

I am terrified for my grandchildren.

One of the awful clichés of the 1970s was “the Royal Ulster Constabulary are keeping an open mind”. It was so common that it was joked about in West Belfast…..”a Catholic man was found strangled, stabbed, shot and beaten to death on the Shankill Road…….police are keeping an open mind as to the motive”. I apologise for the dark humour but I have to be honest.

In fairness, police should initially have an “open mind” and maybe even be sensitive about spreading fear into a community.

We have a narrative that it is all over. I believed it was all over in the 1960s. My father cautioned me to careful where I went. Like I caution an 18 year old and a 14 year old.

John Patrick Scullion was the first victim of the (modern) Troubles. His death was marginalised.

Could that happen again?

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