Joe Fitzpatrick would and should be 59 now. Those of us who grew up alongside Joe, knew him - laid back, with deep eyes and dark complexion - to be an intelligent guy, more contemplative than most his age, who’s potential should have taken him far beyond the streets he swept to earn his crust. He never made it out of his teens. 40 years ago this morning he was gunned down by the UVF in the Lower Ormeau Road’s Cooke Place as he began his day’s work attending to the streets that his killers would shortly stain with his blood.
The previous evening’s announcement of an IRA ceasefire, scheduled to commence on the night of Joe's death, was of no benefit to him. It might even have prompted the strategic minds behind his killing to up the ante as a shot across the bows of a British Labour government they suspected of parleying with the IRA. The “might even have” is qualified by the understanding that sectarian hatred is often its own rationale, the stated justification mere moonshine for the optics.
The evening before Joe died, two teenagers I had attended school with, Kevin Ballantine and Gerard Kylie, were also gunned down by loyalists as they left Sunday evening mass in the nearby Lisburn Road. An imminent IRA ceasefire: so what IRA activity were they reacting to or trying to deter? The UDA killers, on this occasion, did not anticipate finding the IRA at prayer, just innocent Catholics. Johnny Adair whose objective in life was to be a British drug dealer rather than Irish one, would later come to be the poster boy for this rancid sectarian perspective ad "yabba, dabba doo, any Taig will do.”
Within a month Michael Adamson and Joey Clarke also had their lives snatched away by loyalist killers. They too were from the Ormeau Road area. Although Michael had since moved on he never moved far enough to escape his stalkers. All five men, four of them still in their teens, were targeted for no reason other than they were Catholics. In Michael’s case his killers alleged that he was a member of the Communist Party. A Communist Catholic, what salivation that must have stirred.
While all this was taking place I was fomenting in Magilligan Prison: seventeen, enraged and in the grip of a molten malice, vengeful and virulent, that needed slaked. I found myself staring into that Nietzschean abyss at the monster that stared back out, oblivious to the steady erosion of whatever moral distinction I believed separated people like me from those slaying Catholic non-combatants. Auden’s necessary murder does not quite have the moral power of Voltaire’s murder diluted by the sound of trumpets. There is no case other than a naked sectarian one that can be made for targeting non-combatants from the “other side”.
The five deaths were the working out of the war crime logic that underpinned the entire loyalist military strategy. In ways that later caused me to draw comparisons between loyalism and the OAS in Algeria, an unarmed civilian population was to be targeted for killing: not for any individual culpability on their own part but because they were, in that memorable phrase, born a this rather than a that.
I never considered the man convicted for killing Joe Fitzpatrick a war criminal. That was much more applicable to the strategists that equipped him with the logic of so called military necessity, making his choice to kill Joe seem a reasonable one in the circumstances. It serves to remind us of ‘how utterly malleable and adaptable people are to context.’
I cut Joe’s photo out of the Irish News and with some help from a fellow prisoner I made a varnished wooden plaque in memory of him which I sent out to his father, Dan. When released that November I called to see him. The first thing this grieving father mentioned was the plaque. He seemed deeply moved by it. For my part I was not yet moved enough by his plight to consider military measures such as Kingsmill in the garish light that would accentuate their heinousness, preferring context and the sound of trumpets.
When people like Joe Fitzpatrick are snatched away in their youth, there is no consolation in the romanticised sophistry 'forever young.' Youth is forever lost, life forever dead, the one unquestionable harsh gift of war.