On 4 February 1974, the IRA set a bomb off on a coach travelling on the M62 near Oakwell Hall, south-east of Bradford. The vehicle was packed with British Army personnel and their families travelling late-night to their bases during a rail strike. Twelve individuals were killed outright, including one female (a wife of one of the soldiers) and their two children, aged 5 and 2. Many others received severe injuries, including a boy of 6. A single conviction of a female alleged bomber turned out to be a miscarriage of justice: Judith Ward was released following an Appeal Court judgement in May 1992.
A few weeks ago I was travelling in the dark back from York to Wrexham when I stopped at the westbound Hartshead Services on the M62 and encountered the sad memorial to the M62 bombing. In 1974 the services had been used as a first aid station to tend to the dozens of wounded victims and it has become one of the principal foci for remembering the atrocity.
I record this here as a further example of a multi-phased memorial with a plaque sponsored by Marshalls, the British Legion and Life for a Life Memorial Forests. There are two further plaques, now arranged with an arboreal focus: a single ‘English’ oak tree, planted in 2009 as a ‘living memorial’ to commemorate those killed. Fronting all of these is a paved area and four flagpoles.
From my Archaeodeath perspective, this is worthy of noting as an arboreal public memorial to a terrorist act, placed at an unsurpassably public location. Yet the specific location is far from arbitrary: the services also have a deep and profound connection to the terrorist attack of 1974. Today, it is a small area of well-maintained memorialisation amidst the mass-produced and nondescript blandness of a motorway services.
In the context of Brexit, there are two further chilling and timely reasons for posting, both relating to the presence of one of the flags flying in front of the memorial plaques and the tree. I cannot make out the flag on the far-right (could it be the UN flag? NOTE: it’s been subsequently pointing out to me that it is likely the Yorkshire flag), but between the flag of St George and the Union flag is the EU flag. These flags fly together at equal height, as part of a shared expression of mourning and hopes for peace in a memorial context that has local, regional, national and international dimensions. Together, the flags recall a tragic incident at a time of sectarian violence and terrorist attacks associated with ‘The Troubles’.
In 2019 we find ourselves at the point where an EU flag flying over the memorial to dead British Army personnel killed by the IRA in 1974 may soon be a thing of the past, or else conjure a sense of stark public disconnection between past and present. We’re leaving the EU, apparently. It’s the will of the people and ‘leave means leave’. As noted for the European Flag of Honour in Llangollen church, if withdrawal from the EU goes ahead, the European Union’s flag, adorning buildings, roads and other public works, as well as flown in many locations, will become disjointed from the present and become a relic of the past. Will they be removed? Will they stay to mark a political, social and economic relationship with Europe that is now in the past? What will happen to the flag on this memorial? Will it be replaced? If so, by what? Will its absence make a difference to how the M62 bombing is memorialised? The flag will become a part of the recent past in our present, whether it flies or it is conspicuous in its absence.
Under 4 miles away from Hartshead Services, in Birstall, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a neo-Nazi shouting ‘Britain First’ during the EU referendum campaign in June 2016. This was arguably another terrorist attack and the first slaying of a UK MP since 1990 when the IRA were responsible. While the perpetrator was a lone assailant, this was not an isolated incident. The heightened fervour surrounding the EU referendum is far from irrelevant to this brutal act, and the Cox attack is cited as part of a wider tide of abuse and violence against the establishment, socialists, liberals, and those perceived to be (or thought to be sympathetic towards) immigrants and minorities, fostered by the referendum and the Brexit process. So, as well as the economic and political toll of Brexit, the process has already re-opened and widened deep fault lines in our society threatening the Good Friday Agreement and fostering xenophobia. This has already cost lives and livelihoods.
In this light, I cannot help feel that my unplanned encounter with the M62 bombing memorial with its EU flag constitutes a stark warning from history. We should register our shame and endeavour to heed this warning. Until recently I might have simply taken the memorial as commemorating tragic deaths resulting from evil deeds in dark days long gone. Now the memorial foreshadows further strife as a result of Brexit, both in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Whatever motivated people to vote to leave the EU – the lies, the promises, the rest – few would have wanted to foster the hate and division in our country that has been let loose by the process. So I fear and dread the sight of the host of new memorials that will inevitably follow if the Brexit debacle spirals onwards and downwards.