A Richly Deserved Honor

By Andre Murphy – Relatives for Justice, Belfast Ireland


When the conflict began in Ireland Clara Reilly was blessed with a home and a young family around her. When the darkest of abuses began she chose to stand up for the next family, despite the vulnerability in which it placed our own – this is courage of enormity that few can boast. Getting through the conflict with your own family intact was challenge enough for most. Mothers standing up for other mothers’ sons and daughters, no matter the threat or how serious that threat may be – with full understanding of its magnitude – places a few of those women apart in our recent history.

This year’s recipient of the Seán MacBride Award is one of the few.  In the tradition of Sean MacBride’s own mother Maude Gonne, Clara Reilly stood up for those with no voice. Those being tortured, imprisoned without due process, being injured with no recourse and murdered with impunity Clara Reilly stood up and was counted. Regardless of the fear she felt for herself and her own young family.

With others she stood against a tide of repression and censorship and demanded that a light be shone on human rights abuses. She did it without fear or favor – challenging all abuses equally. She defended human rights and human life universally – at a time when they had lost their value in the turmoil of our recent Irish conflict. And she did this despite all the threats and repressive measures of the British state.

There are homes across Belfast and the North where people will state that when the worst of our conflict came to their door, no one else did – except Clara Reilly. She with Monsignor Raymond Murray were a support at a time when no support was available. She did this despite her own grief losing her much loved brother Jim to a British state death squad in 1981. That year she put her own trauma to one side as she traveled to the homes of others experiencing the worst of the traumas of that historic year.

Following the death of John Downes with a Plastic Bullet in 1986 she and her great friend and mentor Emma Groves (herself a mother blinded by a rubber bullet) with the other families affected by plastic bullets formed the United Campaign against Plastic Bullets. This campaign highlighted the terrible cost of these weapons on a defenseless civilian population – and what are more the injustices that surrounded these extra-judicial killings. Together they traveled from New York to Moscow, to the very factories where they were made, to highlight the weapons of torture that they are. She fights this battle at every opportunity to this day.

In 1991 she was, of course, in the room when Relatives for Justice was formed. This group which from its formation challenged a hierarchy of victims focusing on universal human rights – dismissing the anti-republican propaganda of the day which placed culpability for those the British state killed on the victims themselves. This was at a fiercely dangerous time. Her great friend and colleague Pat Finucane whose practice with Peter Madden she supported from its founding – was murdered only 2 years earlier. There were direct state assassinations and assassinations by proxy at a hither to unseen scale – with the importation of South African weapons to loyalism. And yet she stood demanding international attention for all the victims of our conflict no matter where they came from.

Without the documentation of the abuses of the 1970s and 1980s, without the campaigning throughout those decades and without the gentle and secure support she gave indeed there would be no focus on victims needs today. There would be a diminished capacity for families to establish the truth. The full complexion of our conflict would not have been established. She is Relatives for Justice spine, heart and soul. She is much loved, deeply respected and this honor is richly deserved.