Monday, 23 August 2010

Caught in the crossfire

In 1972, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, just four months after Bloody Sunday, a ten-year-old boy on his way home from school,was shot and blinded by a rubber bullet, fired by a captain in the British army.

This week – with violence casting a long shadow in North Ireland – the two men will take to a stage in Britain for the first time, in an extraordinary act of public reconciliation, to discuss the devastating moment that has shaped their lives and to promote their message of peace.

Both men - Richard Moore, 49, the victim, and Charles Inness, 68, the solider who fired the gun – have spoken to The Times about their memories of this most traumatic of incidents, and how it changed their lives. Their vivid, affecting, but very different accounts are printed here.

For Mr Moore, his sudden blindness was a catastrophe, but from an early age his astonishing lack of bitterness and self pity, and his determination to lead a full life were obvious. He completed school and went on graduate from the University of Ulster.

With £68,000 in compensation he established himself as a successful businessman, then, in 1996, founded Children in Crossfire, a charity dedicated to helping children caught up in poverty and the threat of war.

Mr Inness remained in the army, and returned to North Ireland to work closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He left the forces in 1993, and eventually retied to the Scottish Borders, with his wife Louise.

But despite his years of service a single day in 1972 continued cast a long shadow: “Occasionally one remembered Northern Ireland and thought: ‘O my God, had I have the gift of foresight, I would not have done what I did and fired a rubber bullet,” he said.

As the tenth anniversary of Children in Crossfire loomed, events conspired to bring Mr Moore and Mr Inness together. A documentary maker put them in touch, and they met for the first time, in Edinburgh in 2006.

They have remained firm friends, regularly staying in with each other’s homes, and with one another’s families. On Friday, they will appear at Edinburgh’s Festival of Spirituality and Peace.

Victor Spence, the festival director said the men’s story was almost overwhelming in its intensity. “These two men provide outstanding examples of the power of forgiveness,” said Mr Spence. “Years ago, I heard Richard speak about his own experiences and was brought to tears. To see both men together at our festival will be a moving and memorable experience.”

Richard Moore's testimony

It was 4 May 1972, four months after Bloody Sunday. It was in Derry, and I lived on the Creggan Estate. Nowadays we tend to forget the environment that existed then.

This was a no-go area. - the British Army and the police were not allowed in. The place was barricaded off. There were riots, shootings, bombings on a daily basis. I remember watching cars in flames and CS gas shooting across the sky. Our house, was a 30-second walk from the houses of four of the people killed on Bloody Sunday. One was my uncle Gerard, my mammy’s brother. That is the context.

I went to Rosemount Primary School. It was on the edge of the Creggan. Both the primary and secondary schools were next to each other and beside them was an RUC police barracks, heavily protected by the British army.

The barracks had sangars – look-out posts – and one of these things was built between a row of houses, facing out onto the football of St Joseph's secondary school. On that day, I got out of school as normal at 3:20 and ran up by the football pitch. I had to pass that sangar as I had on many occasions.

On this particular day, I ran past and a British soldier fired a rubber bullet. I don’t remember hearing a bang. The next thing I knew was waking up in the school canteen. My music teacher, Mr Doherty, had found me lying on the ground. He carried me into the canteen and laid me out on the table. I remember him asking my name. I told him: 'Richard Moore'. He got a shock, because he was my teacher, and he wasn’t able to recognise me. My nose was completely flattened, my eyeballs were down on my cheekbones and my face was just a bloody mess.

The next time I awoke, I was in an ambulance. My daddy and my sister were beside me. My daddy was holding my hand. I remember him saying: 'You'll be OK, Richard.’ One of the ambulance people said, 'There's a woman outside, she's very upset - will we let her in?' He said: 'Don’t let her in, it's his mother.' He didn't want her seeing me in the state I was in.

When I eventually came to, all my conversations were about getting the bandages off my eyes. I loved playing football - there was a boy in the bed opposite and I remember joking with him: 'I can't wait to get these bandages off - I'll teach you how to play football.' That must have been very difficult for my parents and my brothers and sisters.

A month after I was shot, my brother Noel took for a walk up and down the back garden. That wasn’t unusual, because every day he would take me out to help build up my strength. But on this particular day he said: 'Do you know what's happened to you?' I said, 'Yes, I know I was shot.' He said: ' Do you know what damage was done?' I said, 'No.' He said: 'You've lost your right eye and you'll never see again with your left eye.'

There were no dramatics that day. The only time I remember crying was that night when I went to bed. I was a ten year old boy. I wasn't thinking about getting a job, or about getting an education. All I felt was this enormous sense of loss that I would never see my parents again. I was on my own and I cried myself to sleep.

The next day, I woke up and it was the first day of the rest of my life as a blind person. I wanted to be independent, I didn't want people to feel sorry for me. I didn't want to go to a school for blind children. I went back into primary school on to St Joseph's Secondary. Then I went to university and graduated in 1983. I learnt the guitar and played in a semi-professional band and travelled all over Ireland.

I didn't have a moment's anger or bitterness for what happened to me and I always wanted to meet the soldier who shot me. The reason for my attitude was my parents. Despite their best efforts to avoid the Troubles, the Troubles found us and they had to deal with the magnitude of it. They were just poor people dealing with the most difficult situation: watching their son who one day had been out kicking a football and racing and running and climbing over hedges – then, weeks later, walking into half open doors and groping his way round the walls. In the middle of that the only thing I can remember is their hurt. There was never anger. When I talk about forgiveness, it came from them in a very implicit way.

Thirty thee years later, someone asked to make a documentary and I found out the name of the soldier. I flew to Edinburgh and we met in a hotel foyer on 14 January 2006.

The build up was very emotional for me, and I never thought it would be like that. I remember the day before I met Charles, I went to my daddy’s grave and said to him, ‘Look – I hope you are happy with what I’m doing.’ Then I went to see my mother. I said: ‘I am going to meet the soldier tomorrow – what do you think?’ She said: ‘Are you alright about it?’ I said I was. She said, ‘Well Richard if you’re happy, I am happy.’

Finally, to sit there in the hotel, opposite the guy who blinded you and caused so much hurt to your family and to like him, was an incredible experience.

I won’t justify violence, I’m not justifying violence. But sometimes in a violent situation things happen that shouldn’t happen. For me – I can't speak for any other victim – that is the way I have let it go. Whether I hate or love, I won’t get my sight back. Charles is not a bad person. I believe he is someone in a situation where he acted incorrectly and unjustifiably and I bear the consequences. I have to allow him the space to say what he has to say, as long as he allows me the space to speak too. We may not agree – but we can agree to move forward. I forgive Charles.

Charles Inness's testimony

My regiment, 5 Regiment, Royal Artillery was over in Ireland in 1972, from February until June. It was a time of extreme violence, the worst time in the whole of the Troubles. There was a recent statement about Afghanistan: it noted that the situation now, desperate as it is, is still not a bad in terms of numbers of casualties over six months that we had at that time. This was virtually a war zone.

We were sent to Londonderry. I was a captain, given the dubious task of running Rosemount RUC Station. It was a red-rag-to-a-bull situation. We were in a hard line Catholic area, and positioning a police post there attracted every bit of violence that could possibly be thrown at it. The norm was anything from bombing, nail-bombing and shooting, to much lower level violence, rioting, stone throwing , petrol bombing. Almost on a nightly basis we were shot at. Not long before the incident with Richard, two soldiers from my own battery were killed, blown to pieces by a remotely-detonated bomb.

Rosemount police post had a number sangars –manned, sandbagged structures, from which personnel could observe outwards and sideways, and maintain the integrity of the base. It was essential that the sangars were manned, the people were alert, and they were fully aware of what the procedures were, in the event of them seeing something abnormal or being shot at.

On that day, I was called to the sangar and it was pointed out to me by the poor lad inside it, the sort of aggro that had been going on hours – not continual but the coming and going of youths, chucking stones. At one stage they had got hold of a scaffolding pole and they were trying to skewer the guy inside with it.

The choices you had were pretty simple. You had a fire arm and a thing called a rubber bullet gun. A rubber-bullet gun was relatively short-barrelled bit of kit – about 20in long and an inch and a half wide. It was smooth bore, a low charge propelling, literally, a rubber bullet. It is a black piece of rubber about six inches long, conical at the sharp end, blunt at the back. In the time I was there – a six-month period – we used these as a means of trying to disperse low-level violence and fired hundreds with very few effects.

In those days, the procedure was that you most certainly would not go out of the defended area. Because the game was very simple. The youths would throw stones, and cause aggro, a soldier would expose himself by remonstrating with them. Then a chap with a telescopic rifle who would promptly shoot dead the solider. Under no circumstances would I let anyone go out; one merely shouted through an observation slot to get people to disperse. That usually resulted in more shouting and more stones thrown.

On this occasion, I took the appropriate action at that time – which was to fire a rubber bullet, with a view to getting a group to disperse. One of them went down and the rest did disperse. Very shortly afterwards, people came and took the individual away, who had been lying on the ground. Soon we heard some shooting and that incident passed. I didn’t give it much thought.

The next thing, the following morning, I was rung up by my CO, who said the individual who had been hit by the rubber bullet had damn near been killed. He would be very lucky to survive. My immediate feeling was one of absolute and total shock. I thought: ‘How the hell did that happen?’ Obviously, I was devastated.

There was an RUC police inquiry into the incident and a military police inquiry. The upshot was the action I had taken was justifiable and absolutely in line with the procedures at the time, though the outcome was simply horrific. That was a point I totally agreed with.

Over a period of time, the shock of it went, because I am pretty robust and there were many other grisly things going on. It was an unpleasant incident to try to put behind me, and obviously, the sadness and regret stayed with me. Occasionally one remembered Northern Ireland and thought: ‘O my God, had I have the gift of foresight, I would not have done what I did and fired a rubber bullet.’

Many years later, five years ago, I was rung at home by a chap who was ex-RUC. He said: ‘If I said the name Richard Moore to you, would it ring a bell?’ I said: ‘It most certainly would’. He then said, ‘Can I come and talk to you?’

So this guy appeared and gave me a bit of background: that despite his appalling injuries, his total blindness, Richard had managed to get himself back to school, had gone to a good university, had become pretty successful. He had established this wonderful organisation, Children in Crossfire. The guy then said, ‘Richard has got a letter for you – would you like to take it?’ I said, ‘Yes, give me the letter.’ It was absolutely brilliant: there was no acrimony in it, no feeling of hatred. It was astonishingly positive. I took a bit of time to couch a reply – I didn’t think me reply was as good as his letter – but the upshot was that we agreed to meet in an hotel in Edinburgh.

What a day. I walked in and he was sitting in a chair. I walked up and tapped him on the shoulder, and said: ‘Hi Richard, it’s Charles.’ He got up and shook my hand. The next four hours went by like they were a matter of a few minutes. We talked, we chatted, we laughed, we told jokes, we talked about our families. We talked about everything under the sun. We had a damn good lunch, and a bottle of wine. It was the beginning of a great friendship.

I took Richard back to the airport and passed him over to the escort who was going to take him down to the plane. Richard later said to his escort: ‘That man you saw me laughing with – that was the man who blinded me.’ The guy thought he was completely barking mad.

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