A letter by Belfast mother Rosemary McKenna-Thompson to US President Joe Biden, calling on him to consider the impact of Britain’s ‘Bill of Shame’ ending investigations into its war crimes in the North of Ireland.
Dear Mr. President,
It was so uplifting and heartening to watch you on your recent visit to Ireland – the immense sense of joy and pride you expressed again and again was so genuinely moving that it gave us all a collective sense of joy and pride as we journeyed with you from Belfast to Ballina.
Your Presidential style and natural leadership shone through in equal measure. It was all so truly beautiful and positive to witness, even on the saddest of moments with the happenstance encounter with Fr O’Grady and your private moments of reflection on Beau. We all shed a tear with you and said a quiet prayer.
Your key themes of dignity, integrity, honesty, equality, justice – and above all hope – resonated and were welcomed to many within our nation, and our diaspora across the globe. You spoke to us all; we listened and heard your messages. Thank you for coming home. If such a feat is humanly possible for any individual, then you dignified a nation of people. We are gratefully indebted.
I’m in my 80th year. As a young Irish Catholic girl from west Belfast and the eldest of a large family, I, like most of my peers faced generational discrimination. It was hard to find suitable meaningful employment. Most of the jobs, advertised weekly in main newspaper the Belfast Telegraph, carried a rider stipulating ‘No RC (Roman Catholics) need apply’. I kept my dignity and hope.
Aged 18 in 1960 I took an enormous step and emigrated to the USA where I had gained employment with a doctor and his family in Albany, NY. On reflection now, some 60 odd years later, dare I say, it was a brave and even daring decision. It was also a form of forced emigration from my birthplace due to partition and the creation of a gerrymandered sectarian statelet.
After a year I moved to Chicago where my maternal Aunt, Sadie, was living with her husband Matt and their family. Matt, a Mayo man, had established a small construction business. Their kids, my cousins, were first generation Americans. We were all hard working.
However, I began to witness first-hand acts of racism and discrimination of African-Americans, many of whom I worked with and included as friends.
To me racism was just the opposite side of the same coin to that of the sectarianism I had been subjected to in the North of Ireland.
In the summer of 1963 President Kennedy said that civil rights were a moral cause. The President called on all Americans to recognise that cause. President Kennedy and his brother Robert were preparing the ground for the Civil Rights Act which would eventually be submitted to Congress. And rightly so. They showed courageous leadership.
I say this as I feel I was part of that changing America – changing for the better – part of the Kennedy era and proudly so. Here was an Irish President, the first Catholic President, with his brother at his side. A President who was changing the face of domestic and global politics oftentimes for the better. Fresh with a message of hope that was both inspiring and positively infectious with a style and a substance we had only ever read about with the founding fathers and in figures like Lincoln.
I travelled to New York City the day President Kennedy was assassinated. It’s a day I’ll never forget. I was heartbroken. The next day I left by boat bound for Ireland, a vacation through to Christmas and the New Year with my family. I’d every intention of returning to the US.
However, in Belfast I reacquainted with old friends. It was while out socialising with them I met Terry ‘Joe’ Thompson. A musician – guitarist and trainee engineer.
Joe was the youngest in his family, a Protestant family from east Belfast.
We dated, fell in love, and got engaged but not without consequences.
Joe was summoned to the head office by his employer and sacked for being engaged to a Catholic.
We couldn’t live in a Protestant or unionist area given the situation. It was much safer living in a Catholic area.
We suffered from discrimination, yet I was determined, as was Joe, to make a life for ourselves and eventually our children.
The Civil Rights Movement, modelled on the US example, eventually got off the ground here in 1969. My gaze was again turned to the US with the awful killing of Robert Kennedy in June of the previous year.
Joe and I married and had five children, two boys and three girls in that order.
By the 1970’s the conflict was at its height.
We had friends and neighbours killed, some in collusion with the British authorities as it turned out. I said an Act of Contrition and prayed beside the bodies of two neighbours brutally murdered in their home.
Justice for victims of British State violence and collusion was practically impossible.
I also witnessed the killing of a young British soldier, home on leave and visiting his mother in my neighbourhood. I, and my young son Peter, then aged 11, drove into the scene as it all unfolded.
Little did I know what personal suffering lay ahead. My son Peter was killed by British soldiers on January 13, 1990. Peter’s killing was an extra-judicial killing with complex murky background details. In 1992 my sister Catherine’s son, Hugh, was also killed in the conflict.
When Peter was murdered our family was devastated. I still miss him terribly and mourn him. There’s never a day that goes by where he’s not in my thoughts; from morning to night. Truth, justice and accountability for what was an egregious wrong is impossible in the face of UK State impunity.
Along with hundreds of other families that faced similar loss and injustice we came together with Monsignor Raymond Murray and human rights activist Clara Reilly and founded the NGO Relatives for Justice (RFJ) in 1991.
In 1994 we thankfully had the ceasefires and finally in 1998, and only with the support of President Clinton and the US Administration, we achieved the Good Friday Agreement Peace Accord. This is undoubtedly the greatest US foreign policy achievement in living memory. And we pray that agreement remains and is fully implemented.
In 2014 the UK and Irish governments, along with the local parties, signed the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) to finally deal with the violent legacy of the past independently and in a human rights compliant process that met the UK’s legal obligations under the GFA and international treaties.
However, the UK quickly reneged on this commitment arbitrarily binning the agreement; despite ongoing protest from the Irish government.
More recently the UK brought forward self-serving legislation that would provide a full amnesty principally for their actions, which conditionally extends to other non-State parties that were also involved in the conflict.
The proposed legislation will close down all investigations, coroners’ inquests and civil cases for families impacted by three decades of violence. Such a lockdown on the courts and denial of rights undermines democracy, the rule of law, and due process. That such a situation would prevail post the GFA and the envisaged enhancement and delivery of rights is unimaginable, yet it is happening.
Victims will now lose the very agency enshrined in the GFA and access to accountable justice. This not only undermines the Agreement, but it places us all back to the very era that led to the conflict when rights, equality and justice were denied. This means I will never see justice for Peter.
The Irish government is also not ruling out taking an interstate case against the UK to the European Court should they proceed with the legislation. RFJ rightly dubbed the UK bill – “the bill of shame.” Leading legal figures and academics have said it is “Pinochet plus.” The US State Department also have concerns.
There has been quite a few ‘sign-on’ letters from Congressional Representatives to the UK government, including to previous prime ministers, calling for the bill to be scrapped.
Dignity, rights, equality, justice, and hope were the themes of your Presidential visit to Ireland – North and South.
This bill denies rights and justice. It prevents equality. It extinguishes hope for all victims of the conflict. It is undignified.
I suppose the purpose of my writing to you Mr President is in the hope that you might consider the implications of this bill, the impact it is having more widely with respect to the GFA but more importantly the impact it is and will have on the bereaved and injured – those who sacrificed so much for the GFA and yet now stand to lose so much more should this bill be passed into law. It is morally and legally reprehensible. It is retraumatising victims.
As Irish citizens living under British jurisdiction we have always looked to the US, to Irish-America, when our rights need protecting – when the GFA Peace Accord is undermined.
President Biden, as a citizen who has contributed to rights and for change both in Ireland, and in my own small way in the US, but mostly as an Irish mother impacted by British State violence, I urge you to consider intervening in this critical matter. I do not want to burden my grandchildren and future generations to the unfinished business of pursuing accountable justice in the face of this British legislation.
The concerns and opposition expressed through Congressional letters on this bill indicates the unprecedented levels this has now reached. Please use your good offices and relationship with the UK, to urge the UK government to move away from this bill and back on course through the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 and in line with the Good Friday Agreement.
I thank you for any consideration you may give to my letter and my request.
Finally, Mr. President, God Bless you, the First Lady, and your family.
Is Mise Le Meas,