The son of a man murdered by Loyalists almost 40 years ago this month has said that politicians of all hues in Northern Ireland are not listening to the plight of victims.
On Monday, November 22, 1976 two members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters entered the Happy Landing bar in Eglinton just before 6pm and shot dead its manager, John Toland.
He was a 36-year- old Catholic man and was married with seven children. They lived at Windsor Terrace, just opposite St Eugene’s Cathedral on the edge of the Bogside.
The gunmen hit Mr Toland in the neck, chest and abdomen, killing him almost immediately.
Shortly afterwards, the Loyalist group released a statement claiming responsibility. The contents of the UFF statement was a vicious series of lies that to this day is still causing deep anguish to the Toland family.
Two days later, on Wednesday, November 24, 1976 the Londonderry Sentinel printed the statement from the paramiltary grouping.
It said that they had ‘executed’ John Toland in retaliation for the IRA murder of UDR Corporal Derek Kidd a few days earlier.
This was a heinous lie, as was the other portion of the statement which said: “Toland, who came from the Bogside in Londonderry, and ran a public house in Eglinton gathered information from intoxicated Protestants and passed it on to the IRA.”
The UFF statement also falsely and maliciously claimed that John Toland was an IRA ‘intelligence agent.’
Now, almost 37 years since the murder, John Toland’s son, Danny told the Sentinel that he believes political parties in Northern Ireland are abandoning the true plight of those who actually suffered during the Troubles, and instead are getting bogged down in petty, irrelevant squabbles to protect their own take on the conflict.
Even the definition of victimhood in Northern Ireland has become embroiled in controversy.
So, we asked Danny Toland what his definition of victimhood is?
“Victims are those who have lost innocents in the Troubles. There are all sorts of victims, but what we are talking about are the innocent people. These are not those with weapons or bombs who went out and murdered for no reason other than somebody’s religion or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
Yet, if politicians cannot even define victimhood what hope is there for the rest of a truth seeking process?
Danny said: “Then, there is no hope. At the end of the day, if everybody that thinks that everybody involved in the Troubles was a victim, then we may as well just close up and go home.”
We asked Danny Toland what he wanted to see happen in terms of a beginning of a truth and reconciliation process.
He said: “We need to see somebody take the lead. Whether it be newspapers, radio stations or politicians for families from all sides. They need to grasp the nettle and say we need to get answers for these people who are still suffering to this day.
“First and foremost there needs to be an amnesty for all those who have been involved – that have carried out the murders.
“Whether they name people or not, they need to come together and maybe treat it is a history book and say ‘I was involved, this is what happened to this family’, and just provide closure. Let people know why their loved ones were killed and how it happened so people can say ‘look, this is what happened to your grandfather, your father, son, your daughter.’ “
Danny Toland was just 15-years-old when his father was murdered by the UFF. What effect did it have on his family?
“It devastated it for years. My mother is now 73 years old, and I don’t know how she came through it. She is one of the strongest people I have ever come across.
“Our family is very close, but there is a raw, raw edge to it all. We still talk about him. I mean, I am 51 years old now and since the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report, it’s just brought it back again. It’s there when I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep. It’s just a process of searching for answers and we can’t get them,” he said.
We asked Mr Toland what answers are he and his family searching for.
He replied: “I want to know from those responsible why my father was targeted? Why he was murdered? Why did they come out with the spurious lies about him? They destroyed his reputation.
“He served all sides of the community in the bar. He served the security forces. He served Catholics and Protestants – and I hate even using those terms. I mean, even to this day I have still have people asking me about his innocence.”
The HET report into John Toland’s murder officially expunged any suggestion that he had any connections whatsoever to the IRA.
This was a fact already undisputably known by the Toland family before, and indeed after his death.
Yet, in the maelstrom of the 70s in this city, a smear levelled by the UFF stuck to his name and cast doubt over his character.
“My father was held in high esteem by everybody. He was the only man in the street who had a car and used to take all the families to Buncrana on a Sunday and bring them all back. After his death, people sort of shied away from us and you wondered what the reason for that was,” said Danny.
However, a conclusion drawn by the HET into John Toland’s murder was to cause further anguish to the family as it revealed the utterly cold and calculated motivation behind it.
The HET concluded that the reason behind the murder, beyond the fact that John happened to be a Catholic was that the UDA wanted to take over the running of the bar as a money-spinning mechanism to carry out their activities.
“We didn’t know that until we read the HET report. That was their conclusion. It was a murder against his religion and for money. That was the reason for it. Nothing other than that,” he said.
Despite the four-decade long painful journey for the Toland family, Danny said that there was a potential solution that would bring closure to his father’s senseless killing.
He told the Sentinel: “It could come through an anonymous letter from those involved in the killing. It would just need to clearly state what happened and why it happened. We don’t want any names mentioned – just give us the reason and an answer in their own words. Let us see it in black and white. That would close our journey – simple as that. It is not a lot to ask for. Those involved are old men by now and they must have a conscience. What more can I say?”
However, Danny Toland has not just lately arrived at the conclusion that a process is needed to aid all those many thousands in a similar position in Northern Ireland. He has been working behind the scenes with many and varied individuals in an attempt to see light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel not just for his family but for others too. How successful has his quest been to date?
He said: “It is very slow. We are trying to get people from all communities and all sides to meet and talk about their experiences. People are reluctant. They want to stay within their own areas and not get involved. It’s not that they don’t want to talk, but they don’t know who to trust, where to start. So where does the process start?”
Does Danny think high ranking politicians have a duty-bound responsibility to get involved?
“Absolutely. They need to put some sort of mecahnism in place. They need to stop bickering about silly stuff at Stormont and first listen to families once and for all before it’s too late,” he said.
The two men at the helm of the Stormont administration are both over 60. Does Danny Toland think politicians of this ilk are secretly hoping that the discussion on the past and a reconciliation process for victims will simply go away with time?
Mr Toland told the Sentinel: “My fear is that the politicians now involved hand over the baton to the next generation of politicians and this chance will have been lost forever.
“Those here now can make the difference. They were at the coalface at the time, whether they were involved in politics or any other organisations. I would call on all political parties, north and south, in England to get a mechanism in place; to get involved and get talking to victims.
“They are not asking victims, they are not talking to people, to those that matter. Our voices are not being heard.”