Death in Derry

Philippa Reynolds is not a name that I was familiar with up until Sunday. I don’t think I ever recall knowing anyone called  Philippa. It is not the type of handle that I would have heard used too often having lived my life between jails and Northern nationalist areas. Not many in either called that. A Reynolds here and there but not a  Philippa.

I learned of the name because of a car crash last weekend in which a young woman lost her life. She was also in the PSNI which doubtless enhanced its newsworthiness in a way that other Road Traffic Accidents do not, even when they are as needless as the collision that caused this particular death: the victim killed instantly in a car apparently rammed by a stolen jeep. But that comes with policing: death either sustained or inflicted by cops on duty tends to draw more attention than other types of fatalities.

Back in the years of violent political conflict the crash would hardly have merited a second thought in my mind. A cop was an enemy and when enemies get killed it was considered no bad thing. When five of them died during a collision with a lorry just shortly after the start of the first hunger strike in October 1980 the only disappointment was that a vehicle and not the IRA had brought it all about.  On the blanket at the time, years of prison staff violence endured, seven men on hunger strike, tensions high and bitterness deep, compassion for the enemy was not in vogue. Pile even more of them into the landrover next time and a bigger lorry to boot would have been the attitude. It was a brutal perspective forged by the times and easily assimilated, and no doubt the cops probably felt the same about us. Hatred, even when rooted in genuine grievance, is the most blinkered, destructive and nihilistic of emotions.

For her family and those who loved her nothing good came out of the death of Philippa Reynolds. They may have been lifted by the response and sympathy, the mass cards and flowers left in at local cop shops, but it is small consolation against the loss of a child.  For people like me far removed from the sense of personal tragedy played out in a rainy Newtownabbey this afternoon, her death allowed for some reflection.  While a number of republicans still believe themselves to be at war with the PSNI, it is no longer something that figures in my worldview. I am still a critic of the force in the North, seeing it as an armed British state adjunct which is frequently assailed in my writings. But I don’t despise the PSNI. In addition to having interviewed a serving Chief Constable and the former head of Belfast Special Branch for The Blanket,  I have spoken with too many of them at conferences and shaken too many of their hands to allow me to think they are all dastardly demons out to harm a good living, god fearing republican like myself. I regard them as political opponents because I view them as a police force with a discriminate political function. But the hatred has dissipated.  They are no longer the enemy. 

I have no reason to like the PSNI as a force. It has hounded me, making life distinctly uncomfortable, in its zeal to sabotage research and seize the Boston College tapes. It has hassled friends and people who were comrades from the jails. It has never gone after the security services killers, the hidden hands behind loyalist death squads, nor sought to investigate the many torturers that populated its own ranks. That certainly gives me the right to criticise them. It allows me to fire round after round of polemic their way. What it does not do is convey upon me any right to kill them or advocate that anybody else kill them. It does not permit me to label them legitimate targets and become a cheerleader for those who take it on themselves to ‘legitimately target’ them. Nor does it licence me to derive some sort of sick solace when they die whatever the circumstances.

So the death of Philippa Reynolds allows me to pull my thoughts together, reaffirms for me that it is not a case of just having to scratch deep enough to find the hatred of old still lurking in its lair poised to spit venom at the first opportunity, but best masked for now with niceties to keep in tune with the mood music of the current peaceful climes.  I am certain that the professed absence of hatred is not something uttered as the asking price to get across the threshold of polite society, a place I rarely visit in any event.  I feel no less a republican for viewing the death of Philippa Reynolds as a loss and not a gain. And it is psychologically satisfying to know that what I feel is wholly undetermined by the needs of the peace process, that it is not the ritualistic miming of words such as those exhaled without the slightest sound of sincerity in the wake of the killing of David Black or Adrian Donohoe.

I don’t pretend to grieve for Philippa Reynolds. I didn’t know the woman nor had I heard of her prior to her untimely demise. And as Eoghan Harris once wrote the human condition is such that we have evolved in such a way as to protect us from grieving for everyone otherwise we would be so burdened by grief we would not be able to function.  The further away from our own little world people are the less affected we are by their passing. Yet, it tells me something about the distance covered that I can empathize with her family, a sentiment that years ago would barely have stirred in me.

I wish she hadn’t lost her life.


  1. Am-

    This post "Death in Derry" is getting about-NIviews and Paul Clarke of UTV have just retweeted this Article on Twitter-

    Death comes to us all some day-but its not easy watching the youth die first-

  2. Good post a cara your humanity shines through,you have learned well from your past,I looked at that womans needless death as something that it could have been anyones wife ,mother ,child that those thugs in their act of sheer madness snuffed out in a frozen moment,they didnt know they were smashing into a cop car from what I can see as it was unmarked, therefore it could well have been a family car full of children for all they cared and that makes me angry.

  3. Philippa? I haven't ever heard that name either. Her father was an ex RUC man named Mervyn. There are definitely some strange names in the unionist community.

  4. My first thoughts when I started to read the article was “this is someone’s little girl “. A well written post AM a lot of compassion were a lot is needed for her poor parents

  5. Good post Mackers, when we gloat at death we lose our humanity.

    Many times I've passed through that junction over the years at that hour of the night, whether it was returning from the airport with my family or returning from the hospital following an emergency. It could have been anyone killed. That it was a young member of the PSNI makes no difference.

    I agree, the PSNI are a state police force, not a police service; the state being the British statelet of NI. That statelet is governed on behalf of the Brits by the DUP and SF - they stand together against Republicanism.

    However I believe that no one can justify taking life for the sake of claiming that the war is continuing. It isn't continuing. In fact I believe it is the greatest obstacle in the regrowth of Republicanism.

  6. I seen this today in the Derry Journal about a death in Derry on Valentines Day 1979. The upshot is this..

    The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is examining the possibility of bringing charges against the RUC men who elicited a murder confession from four Creggan teenagers in 1979.

    The confessions followed the murder of a British Soldier, 34 years ago. Twenty two year old Lt. Stephen Andrew Kirby, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was shot through the heart on Wapping Lane on Valentine’s Day 1979, he died instantly. The Derry Four, namely Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish, Gerard Kelly and Gerry McGowan, then all teens, were arrested and charged for his murder.

    When they refused to accept a plea bargain they were advised to skip bail and go on the run. The Creggan boys became fugitives.
    Though never arrested or questioned by the authorities in the South, they were cut off from family and social circles, with no support network.

  7. Thanks to all for their comments on this piece

  8. Well written, i feel its a good insight for me who knows little about you but it has blown apart my misconception of i thought you thought or may have thought if that makes sense at all.

  9. Viritas,

    thank you. This was a sad case. A Boyne Rover said the woman was someone's daughter.

    You will find thimgs on this site you will not like and things you will. It is the same for me. No saints here but for the most part ordinary people, neither faultless nor flawless, who try to think about things and who may often be as wrong as we are right.

    And we commit the same errors that you make and get pulled up for it in turn. What you get screamed at for today I or somebody else will get it another time.