‘Look into their eyes, Boris and then tell me why amnesty is the way forward’

Colin with Mo Norton, Damien McNally and John Reid, three subjects of the exhibition.

By David Hennessy

Belfast artist Colin Davidson’s poignant current exhibition Silent Testimony is comprises 18 portraits of people who have lost loved ones during The Troubles.

The artist has invited Prime Minister Boris Johnston and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to visit the Ulster Museum and look into the eyes of his subjects and then explain to him why they would still like to go ahead with drawing a line under all the suffering caused before the Good Friday Agreement.

Davidson says such victims have never been listened to and that even suggesting such an amnesty is the ‘ultimate insult’.

He says, ‘These people are paying the price for everybody else’s peace’ and describes the proposed amnesty as both ‘inhumane’ and ‘barbaric’ as if there is any empathy and compassion being shown it is not to victims but to their killers.

Colin Davidson told The Irish World: “I see this as being the ultimate insult to the people who I think have paid most.

“These people are paying the price for everybody else’s peace. These people have had to forego their need for answers and for justice, in order for a greater good for us all.”

Boris Johnson was condemned by both nationalist and unionist parties when his government proposed to introduce legislation that would prevent any future prosecutions, judicial inquests or civil actions taken against those who were involved in the violence in Northern Ireland prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Colin tweeted the PM and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to invite them to Ulster Museum to see the exhibition and learn something from the stories of the violence that they are so keen to draw a line under.

“What I was appealing to Boris Johnson and to Brandon Lewis was to say, ‘Look, please come. Please spend time in this room. Please read each of the little stories that I wrote about that person’s loss. Look into their eyes and then tell me why this legislation and how this legislation is the best way ahead’.

“Because victims haven’t been consulted about this, victims groups haven’t really been consulted about this legislation at all.

“There are other ways ahead. There are other answers to our past.

“Some of which are really bringing answers for families who haven’t had answers for maybe 30, 40 years.

“I’m thinking about what Jon Boutcher’s doing with Operation Kenova. That model could be rolled out to give answers.

“But how a blanket amnesty could create the environment in which people tell the truth, start to give answers is absurd to me.

“The legislation that they have proposed, to me it’s the ultimate insult to those who have suffered loss, Basically saying to them, ‘Your loved ones don’t count’.

“Basically saying that, ‘We’re wanting to brush everything under the carpet in order to draw a line and in order that everybody can move on’.

“The problem is these people can’t move on as a result of this.

“Part of the reason for me making the work in the first place was because, I suppose since 1998- since the Good Friday Agreement, I realized that there was nothing in the agreement for people who suffered loss.

“And that as time went on, there was really nothing being done.

“They were voiceless, they were left to pick up the pieces on their own and get on with their own lives whilst everybody else was told about the positivity and the need to move on.

“I very much felt that our victims and survivors in some way hold the key to the future in this place.

“They gave the most. They often made the ultimate sacrifice.

“They had to forego justice and answers back in 1998. The perpetrators of the events which resulted in their loss were free.

“How this will aid reconciliation and healing in this place, I’ve no idea. It’s just absurd.

“It’s inhumane in a Western democracy to say that all killings before a certain date will now not be investigated.

“That families aren’t even allowed to bring civil cases, there’s something barbaric about it actually.

“If there is empathy and compassion shown in any direction, it’s towards those people who killed. They’re the ones who are going to be more free now and the innocent victims whose loved ones were caught in a bomb blast or shot because they were walking down the wrong street- They’re the ones who are forgotten about. And I’m very keen to bring this plight to the fore again and again as long as I have to.”

Mo Norton with her Portrait. Mo lost her brother in an IRA bombing.

A poignant exhibition, Silent Testimony gives a voice to those who have not been considered in conversations about Northern Ireland: The victims themselves.

“(Sparing a thought for victims) is the least that we can do.

“As soon as I started to make the work back in 2013, 2014 and I started to spend time with the people that I painted, I realized that they don’t demand a thing.

“They have lived with their loss for often 40, 50 years.

“They know what living that’s like and in some ways, me being there to listen, it was all I could do.

“It was more than anybody’s done for them before.

“And it’s not hard. I just spent a few hours with them: Drawing them, photographing them, ultimately painting them and listening to the stories that they had to tell. Listening to what their life have been like since, listening to what life is like now for them.

“And in many cases, it was the first time that they had ever talked to anybody about it, nobody had been interested to hear.

“The idea of sparing a thought is something that many of us in this place haven’t ever really thought about.

“That was part of the idea of the exhibition at the start: To say, ‘Listen to what these people have to say now’.

“Strangely this exhibition isn’t about the past at all, it’s actually about right now. About what is left behind now.

“It’s about bringing attention to this plight.

“It’s about drawing attention to the tens of thousands of people living in this place who we are passing on the street who are living privately with loss for which they can get no closure.

“That’s really what it’s about.

“They need answers and justice for their loss.

“As early as 1998, they gave that up.

“In a society where we want to look ahead it’s not a particularly palatable topic to talk about, what the fallout of our brutal past and ongoing trauma has been.

“As I’ve got to know many victims and survivors in this state and beyond, I realized that they hold the key.

Colin Davidson and Kim Mawhinney, Senior Curator of Art at National Museums Northern Ireland.

“For once in our discussions, for once in our debating about the future in this place, let’s include them. Let’s hear what they have to say.

“They have given up so much.

“They have had to live for many, many years with their loss, with no answers.

“Let’s include them, let’s see what they have to say.

“They weren’t included in the Good Friday agreement.

“They weren’t included in any of the subsequent talks after that and since.

“Let’s start to bring the people who are paying for everybody else’s peace in this place into the debate about what the future of our little part of the world is going to look like, how we’re going to deal with the past and how to make this place ultimately work.”

It should have come as no surprise that Colin got no response to his invitation to Johnson and Lewis.

“No, I haven’t had a response but then again, there’s no imperative for anybody to respond to a tweet, I suppose. And I acknowledge that.

“In some ways, it was an open tweet to express the general disgust at the government’s plan.

“Most people I speak to in this place feel disgust towards the plan. I suppose I was echoing that as well.”

The exhibition runs until 23 January 2022.  For more information, click here.