By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
Human rights and the pursuit of justice have dominated Clara Reilly’s life for more than 30 years.
Clara divided her early-married life between rearing a large family and campaigning for those experiencing the sharp edge of injustice.
As far as injustice is concerned Clara had a baptism of fire. She lived in Turf Lodge in the early 1970s when the area was under virtual military curfew and local people were being regularly arrested for interrogation or internment.
With one of the few available phones in her house, distraught relatives were at Clara’s door day and night seeking help to get their loved ones released from British military custody.
It was these fraught encounters between the powerless and powerful that prompted Clara to become involved in human rights work.
Along with Fr Faul, Fr Murray, Fr Brady and Anne Murray she helped set up the Association for Legal Justice (ALJ) in 1970.
The ALJ recorded by hand thousands of accounts of arrest and torture of detainees.
The ALJ was instrumental in convincing the Irish government to take the British government to the European Court of Human Rights where they were found guilty of degrading political detainees known as the ‘hooded men’.
Clara won a precedent-setting landmark case against the British government when she was arrested for ‘screening’ - a policy used for mass arrests to gather intelligence. The judgment forced the British government to end ‘screening’.
In 1981, the year of the hunger strike, Clara organised an international conference about the use, by the crown forces, of plastic bullets. They killed seven people that year including three children and Belfast mother of three Nora McCabe. Nora’s killing by an RUC man was famously captured on camera. The RUC killing of Sean Downes with a plastic bullet at a protest in Belfast in August 1984 led Clara and bereaved family members to set up the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets.
In 1991 she helped establish the Relatives for Justice (RFJ) which has been campaigning for truth and justice for hundreds of families of those killed by crown forces or as a result of collusion.
Those who work with Clara describe her as an ‘indefatigable advocate’ for all people’s human rights.
Early in Clara’s life injustice visited her family. Her father was interned in Crumlin Road gaol when Tom Williams was hanged in the 1940s.
Her four bothers were interned in the seventies.
Loyalists killed her brother Jim; another brother Harry had his life cut short due to being severely injured in a bomb blast. Her cousin Brendan O’Callaghan was shot dead by the British army.
Clara believes there should be no strings attached to human rights, that justice is indivisible, above party politics, the interests of governments and armed organisations.
She used her formidable skills to encourage armed republican organisations to respect people’s human rights and managed to save people’s lives.
Clara Reilly would be an ideal choice as a victim’s commissioner.
It is unlikely she is on the British government’s short list given her trenchant opposition to the cavalier way they treat victims and survivors of the conflict.
Instead Peter Hain appointed Bertha McDougall, the widow of an RUC man as victim’s commissioner. She may well be an effective commissioner. Time will tell.
Nationalists view the appointment as a sop to the DUP.
For years RFJ has challenged the British government to accept its part in the conflict and its responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of people and to end the situation where the state forces kill, investigate themselves and then exonerate the killers.
They have opposed the British government sponsored ethos, so often reflected in media coverage, which treats relatives of those killed by the IRA as more deserving of sympathy and support and those killed by the crown forces as less deserving of sympathy and support.
This attitude has created a hierarchy of victims with those the RFJ represent at the bottom. They believe the refusal to recognise all victims equally is adding to the grief of thousands of relatives.
RFJ is seeking justice not revenge, truth not imprisonment. That is a magnanimous step for people denied both. Will they get it? Will someone like Clara Reilly ever be a victim’s commissioner?