Slugger O'Toole

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Thoughts on Victims, the past and the future of the past

Fri 3 June 2011, 11:34am

The furore over Mary McArdle’s appointment as special advisor to the new Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin is showing no sign of going away. As Pete mentioned below McArdle has made a comment in the Andersonstown News expressing regret that Mary Travers was killed: regret but no apology and certainly no repentance which would as Jim Allister and others have pointed out, have to mean naming the other members of her murder gang: something her oath to the overall murder gang prevents.

This episode has of course brought victims and the past back to haunt Sinn Fein. The essential problem is that Sinn Fein do not see the murder of Miss Travers or Marie Wilson or any of the others as the same as that of Jo Yates. At least some of the nationalist / republican community seem to disagree with them, and privately quite a few SF voters are undoubtedly embarrassed by this crass gesture by SF and may regard some of those for whom they vote as less than wholly desirable.

One of the main reasons why this, possibly first appointment of a convicted murderer as a senior civil servant, has created such a rumpus is, however, the character and behaviour of Ann Travers. Ms. Travers is in many ways the perfect nightmare as a victims’ relative for the political representatives of the perpetrators of that murder. In print the honesty, humanity yet power of her words shines through. On television it is worse for them: she is a woman of palpable decency, utterly articulate even through the grief which clearly still wracks her. One might suspect that if Ms. Travers met with the IRA murderers such as McArdle they would be ashamed but remembering their brazen behaviour when Gordon Wilson met them that would ascribe much too much decency to the terrorists.

Throughout her time in the media spotlight Ms. Travers has held absolute integrity and articulated a simple message that victims should not be forgotten and that moving on cannot smother all memory of the past.

That past is still absolutely not agreed in Northern Ireland. The republican narrative of the past is repeated ad nauseam. Whilst it may have gained some traction in legislation it has singularly failed to make any headway outside their own core vote, some official publications and the “liberal dissidents” for whom “the past” is more a potential gravy train than anything else.

For unionists (and most nationalists) the past is the immoral and wicked shootings, beatings, bombings and most of all killings of the Troubles. The majority of these were committed by the IRA and the assorted other republican criminals but a very large number (including the first) were also committed by loyalists and a few indeed by the security forces. However, unionists will not accept that the security forces were simply another “armed group” nor that there was significant organisational collusion between the security forces and terrorists resulting in most of the murders committed by the loyalists

The arguments against widespread collusion could be rehearsed for ever: the smaller number of people killed by the security forces despite their overwhelming superiority in intelligence, training, weapons and ammunition. The fact that so few IRA terrorists were killed by loyalists would suggest to unionists that the security forces, who usually had a good idea who the terrorists were, did not collude. If they had the loyalists would have been more effective in killing IRA members. The fact that more loyalists were arrested and spent longer in gaol than republicans would also be suggestive of a lack of collusion. That of course is all rejected by republicans who demand “truth”.

When republicans demand the likes of a truth commission they seem most unlikely to want anything more than a quarter or an eighth truth process.

Republicans want the British government to own up to any and all possible collusion between the security forces and the loyalists. Then in cases where there is no evidence of collusion they want it invented or else simply deny its absence. In such cases the absence of evidence of collusion is to republicans simply evidence of further even more devious collusion – a truly Kafkaesque proposition.

On the other hand republicans want absolutely no truth about their possible collusion with the security forces. Neither the possibility that senior republicans were allowed to get away quite literally with murder because they were informers nor the possibility that senior republicans set up their comrades for death in order to ease their own passage to political power. If a senior republican were to state in a “Truth and Reconciliation” forum that they had indeed arranged Mr. Lynagh’s breakfast with the SAS prior to attending his funeral it might cause little concern for ordinary unionists and nationalists but would cause incalculable outrage amongst the republican base.

Clearly other parts of “Truth and Reconciliation” from republicans would be practically inconceivable. For senior current Sinn Fein politicians to tell the truth about their past would almost certainly be to detail how they personally murdered people or that they ordered specific killings. The spectre of the public admission a real life version of Al Pacino in The Godfather calmly, coldly ordering mass murder and then going to church would be one which would damage the republican leadership severely and would almost certainly loose them large numbers of votes. Most may all be certain that this sort of thing happened; most may treat the denials with utter contempt but the lack of an open admission seems somehow to be a defence mechanism for the republican leadership and some of their electorate.

The reconciliation industry of do-gooders were keen to support the likes of commissions and all forms of reconciling especially when that reconciling could be used to generate importance and ideally jobs for themselves. Their zenith was clearly the Eames Bradley report when two important do-gooders were paid very large sums of money to head a commission which went pompously around the province and even further afield gathering evidence about the past. It then promptly ignored almost all the evidence it had gathered as it did not fit in with their preferred narrative of us all being victims, all being guilty and, hence, the need to move to some sort of truth process and amnesty. That amnesty was clearly intended albeit after another commission of do-gooders and no doubt more evidence to be ignored and more expenses to be claimed.

The other issue which Ms. Travers illustrates so vividly is that of victims. Her painful eloquence speaks of what it is like to be a victim and how inadequately the victims have been treated in spite of the assorted highly paid victims commissioners and victims groups. It also demonstrates the fundamental lie at the heart of the definition of victims in Northern Ireland.

The definition of a victim is:

“the surviving physically and psychologically injured of violent, conflict-related incidents and those close relatives or partners who care for them, along with the close relatives or partners who mourn their dead”.

The problem with this is at least two fold. Firstly it allows all manner of people to claim victimhood with at times dubious legitimacy. There is no set definition of “psychologically injured” and it can become a catch all for anyone who wants to claim it. In my experience real victims and indeed those who were caught up in incidents to do with the Troubles are less inclined to claim “psychological victimhood” whereas at times some with little contact with violence are much keener to wrap themselves in the cloak of victim status for assorted reasons. Clearly some people were utterly unphased when a bomb went off near them whereas others were psychologically traumatised temporarily or permanently. Indeed some people happily recount terrorists emptying the magazines of automatic weapons at them personally and missing and then deny any suggestion of victim status: phlegmatic does not seem to do such people justice. Others in similar circumstances are understandably traumatised for years. Such people have every right to self define as victims. However, those whose contact with the Troubles consists (like most of us) of the hassles of being late for work or getting home when there were police road checks; being searched going into Marks and Spencer; being evacuated from a building because of a bomb scare are in no way victims.

I am reminded of a very middle class girl from one of the poshest bits of the Cityside in Londonderry with whom I worked. She recounted that a friend with a very similar lifestyle who went to university in England told her on the phone how he had been telling his new English university friends how hard it was for them growing up in Northern Ireland. Her reply was as devastating as it was accurate for many – “Yes it was awful sometimes when the army were stopping on the bridge we were late for horse riding lessons.”

Some people are victims in the sense that they were gravely injured by terrorist incidents: there are very many of these people and often they have not received enough attention. The insulting Ford Focus of money which Eames Bradley offered to the closest relative of the deceased (it was unclear how the closest relatives was to be defined but as with so much of that odious report they were mealy mouthed meaningless words). However, there was nothing for those injured even if they were gravely so. It is always worth remembering the twelfth victim of the IRA at Enniskillen: Ronnie Hill the former missionary headmaster of Enniskillen High School. His wife Noreen selflessly looked after him for 13 years before his death in 2000 (she died in 2008). If one aspect of Eames Bradley and the whole charade which parts of the victims sector has become needed to be illustrated it would be the way in which the likes of Ronnie and Noreen Hill were effectively written out of the history of victimhood.

A different form of writing out of victims occurred to the likes of Jim Dixon. He seems regarded as an undesirable victim as he flatly refuses to toe the line of peace and reconciliation: much the same happens to Willie Frazer. All of them are regarded as bitter nutters and their victim status is effectively denied by many who claim to have such care for victims. Worst amongst those denying them victim status are the assorted liberal Protestant churchmen of the type who rushed to the media spotlight when the Bloody Sunday victims and families (also victims) were rightly vindicated. The churchmen had shown little or no interest in the Bloody Sunday families previously; have shown even less to most other victims and absolutely none to those victims who refuse to play the “peace and reconciliation game.”

The relatives of the deceased are usually easy to ascribe victim status to. Whether the deceased were innocent by all save the most warped analysis of the world such as Mary Travers or Marie Wilson or whether they were in large measure responsible for ending up as they did such as Joseph McManus (who was killed trying to murder an off duty UDR soldier who unfortunately for McManus fired back) the reality is that their relatives have still lost a loved one. Indeed it may be more difficult for some relatives of terrorists especially if they opposed the murdering ways of their late loved one. In addition when they complain about the deaths of their relatives although their pain is as real as anyone’s their comments are often difficult for most to give much sympathy to, such as when the mother of one of the terrorists killed at Loughgall claimed they should have been arrested. Exactly how eight heavily armed terrorists should have been arrested is unclear but the mother’s tears are still the mother’s tears. The only time that emotive piece of language is justifiable.

There is then no hierarchy of grief: Billy Wright, Lenny Murphy, Jim Lynagh and Seamus McElwaine’s relatives lost a loved one as much as the victims of those murderers lost loved ones. Even if the families supported their murderous relatives they still have the grief of the empty space at the table. However, although there is no hierarchy of grief there is most definitely a hierarchy of victims.

At one end of that spectrum there is the likes of Miss Travers murdered attending church or Harold Brown, Victor Cunningham and David Wilson murdered in Darkley mission hall. At the other end we have those who went out with the intention to murder and kill and died in that objective: the Loughgall martyrs and Thomas Begley fit into that latter category. The vast majority of people here unquestioningly accept that the David Wilson’s of the Troubles were victims but that the Thomas Begleys are not victims in remotely the same sense if victims at all.

Republicans will no doubt quibble but the majority of people in Northern Ireland both unionist and nationalist still regard the majority of those murdered including those labelled as “legitimate targets” by the terrorists as completely innocent whereas they regard the terrorists as guilty. Furthermore it remains clear that the overwhelming majority of people reject as a lie the suggestion that the terrorists’ campaigns were justified.

As a final thought it is maybe worth mentioning the sort of outcomes victims ask for. Clearly there are victims who simply want to forget the past and move on. There are also some who want some sort of truth and reconciliation. All the relatives of the dead I know, however, regard their relatives as having been murdered and they actually want their day in court. They are well aware that this is unlikely: some have already been told privately that their relatives’ murderer himself is dead. However, most seem to want justice to be done. They may be well aware that under the terms of the Belfast Agreement the murderers will only get two years in gaol. However, that is what was agreed: they seem willing to accept that. What they are unwilling to accept is forgetting the past and indeed forgetting justice for their loved ones. That was not what the Belfast Agreement stipulated: it was about sentences only. Most seem to know that hey are most unlikely to get justice but formally closing the door to any hope of that would victimise them yet again.

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