Victims still have make their case – a lesson from Venables

In the hue and cry over the Jon Venables case, the assumption goes unquestioned that Denise Fergus the mother of murdered toddler Jamie Bolger has “ a right to know” the details of Venables’ alleged reoffending. No one lightly crosses the mother of an infant murder victim, but Simon Jenkins is surely right to conclude that justice is a meal best served cold and as free as possible from public comment during the investigative and judicial process. To bow uncritically to Mrs Fergus’s natural fears and demands is to deprive her of her own sense of wider responsibility. We live in a less deferential age when judges are no more treated like Gods than are politicians. Victims have been elevated to a new status and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland, although their status remains unclear.At the same time it is neither possible nor desirable to shut a family victim up. The gruelling campaigns of the Omagh families and the McCartneys may not have been successful but they uncovered much that would have remained hidden. Penny Holloway’s is a case in point where her brave and skilful campaign carried on to the highest level won a rare reappraisal of a decision not to proceed in the case of the murder of her son Thomas. In cases of deep pain and controversy, we can only proceed case by case and with minds as open as possible and with no grandstanding from politicians. While it is right that more heed is paid to victims than ever before, their demands should not be accepted just because they are victims. These issues should be considered even more carefully, now that Justice powers are about to be handed over. All the parties should be alive to the danger of turning cases into political footballs. They must question their own prejudices. The behaviour of politicians on the Policing Board sets a mainly helpful precedent. “Justice” is both what the courts say it is and what the public thinks it is. It is up to us all, not just the judicial process, to ensure that the two coincide.

  • JaneJeffers

    Victim status seems extremely coveted in modern Britain.

  • granni trixie

    JJ: I do not agree – look around at the walking wounded in NI – I do not think anyone chose to be a victim or survivor.

  • apollo293867

    The whole Bulger case reflects very poorly on modern Britain today and it is interesting to contrast it with the case of Mary Bell another child who killed 2 boys in 1968.

    The general response to that case was one of profound shock and a collective attempt to understand the issues behind the killings and indeed Mary Bell was eventually charged with manslaughter, not murder. Mary Bell was 11 at the time of the crime, and her co accomplice was 13. She was acquitted even though she was present at both deaths. At the time debate was fierce about where Mary Bell would be kept as her status as a child was very much to the fore. Much discussion was placed on rehabilitation and treatment, rather than punishment.

    Go forward 25 years and the Bulger murder also involves two young accomplices and the treatment could not be more different. The shrill shrieking of the press, drowned out any attempt to understand and cod theories on video horror movies abound while vigilanties stalk the court to get at the perpetrators. They are called evil, and errr thats it. Another victory for the freedom of the press.

    It is interesting to note that these young boys were convicted in an adult court and if this crime had been committed in almost any other country they would have been deemed under the age of criminal responsibility.

    Now is the time MORE THAN EVER to protect the process of law. JUSTICE MUST BE BLIND otherwise we become a more brutal society. We appear to have lost the ability to reflect in a tidal wave of 24 hour news channels and the proliferation of media. We have sensation overload it appears that the public’s view is “Hang the evil bastards and hurry up because the X Factor is on in a minute”

    Trite opinions by celebs has replaced civic dialogue and reflection.

    Brian in his peroration says ““Justice” is both what the courts say it is and what the public thinks it is. It is up to us all, not just the judicial process, to ensure that the two coincide”

    I concur heartily. I would also add that it is my profound belief that the mark of any decent society can be seen by the way it treats it’s wrong doers. At this stage the Jury is definitely out

  • JaneJeffers


    ye got me.
    By Britain I really meant England, and by England I really meant the Lond print media.

    Still, I hope poor old Ryan Shawcross gets over his ordeal.

  • Spotty Muldoon

    In the Bolger case, the victim is dead. I don’t see that his mother has any right to know anything about Venables. Now, should she or her family be under any further threat from Venables, then the police need to act to protect her. Justice was done and was seen to be done. The fact that rehabilitation appears to have failed in this case means that we really should question what we mean by justice. Putting someone away clearly isn’t working (see today’s stories on how much re-offending costs the taxpaper). Monitoring after release is clearly flawed (Peter Chapman case this week). It seems to me that we say “Hang the bastards” as apollo suggests. Then we forget about them. Then we want to hang them all over again when they pop back up. Like a repeat of X Factor, for Gawd’s sake, and what could be more pointless than that?

  • Dread Cthulhu

    SM: “In the Bolger case, the victim is dead. I don’t see that his mother has any right to know anything about Venables. Now, should she or her family be under any further threat from Venables, then the police need to act to protect her. Justice was done and was seen to be done.”

    Except, of course, that while the court has handed down Mr. Venables punishment, the state has not merely been lax in enforcing the terms of said punishment, they have actively sought to conceal his contempt for the courts and the terms of his release. As such, so long as there were terms extending beyond his release, justice was incomplete.

    Now, the one thing about hanging an offender and forgetting about him is that, if you do it right, you don’t have to worry about recidivism… you just leave the bastard twisting in the wind.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Frankly Victims set the Agenda.
    It would be impossible to “win” an argument with Denise Fergus….or Sarah Paynes mother (of “Sarahs law” fame). Yes being the mother of a victim gives Mrs Payne an insight into something we all want to avoid. Whether or not she deserved to be given a post on a quango..actually head one on that basis seems just a PR stunt.
    Isnt there a kind of Sharia law where the victims family decides (sometimes with the aid of a financial inducement whether convicted murderers live or die?). Are we heading down that road?

    Those pictures of Jamie Bulger being led away from the Shopping Centre….are scary. Particuarly for me. I have a 2 year old grandson. And the pictures of a lynch mob baying at a prison van scare me too. I have a grandson not much younger than Venables & Tomlinson were.
    I remember a father of a victim of our own Troubles whose son was a victim of the Romper Room sectarian killings ….saying on camera that it comforted him that his son died like that……rather than killed like that.
    And thats chilling.
    In the 1970s people looked to Jouce McCartney, the catholic woman from the Ormeau Road who lost two soms in brutal circumstances. In the 21st century we look to Alan McBride who lost his wife and child.
    Much as we admire them we dont want to be them.
    We frankly dont know how we will react if its “that” close…..yet we kid ourselves that we are all victims because we have attended one or ten or twenty funerals of old schoolfriends, neighbours, colleagues.
    I will not point the finger at victims. Its a losing argument. But we have a share of victims who feel they have a status which was or was made political and gives them the right to impede what the rest of us call progress. Willie Fraser. Mrs O’Hare in Derry. Ooops I did point the finger.

    But who is the authentic voice of Victimhood?
    Frankly we are much more savvy about the whole nature of Victimhood….and its ugly sister Compensation. Like most people of a certain age, stuff happened but in the early 1970s the compensation culture was not fully developed. I have a feeling that I missed out and I have had a slightly jaundiced view of victimhood since.
    I dont think that I am alone in that. When a low scale incident happened to me (as it did on a daily basis for thousands of others) I was glad that it was over. Now Id be aware of the price tag that accompanies such an incident.

    On the specifics of Venables, can you realistically jail a child of ten for life? Seventeen years ago the answer from us all would have been a resounding “no” but that was before we had to confront what two ten year olds could do (and yes I remember Mary Bell apparently living a blameless life).
    So what happens on their release?
    A new identity and (obviously in this case failed) supervision. But callers to Jon Gaunt type shows will still say “string them up”.

    Society wants its revenge…not justice.. It wants to throw a brick thru a window, discover a work mate has a past. It needs to know. It kids itself. Needing to know USA style is popular/populist but drives the released prisoner underground.
    We are not exactly on the high moral ground in this part of the world.
    Venables a 10 year old once……has been forced to live a lie and Im not sure that we could do that. “No I have never been to Liverpool” “I support Aston Villa”, “I have no brothers or sisters”…..sticking to the script the Probation Service has given him.
    But here………….people not much older than Venables once was…….are released from prison for worse offences. Never even faced trial because they wore a (for example) Para uniform instead of a balaclava…..
    And you can get to be a backbench MLA or well respected knighthood on that basis.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Oh just to add that the McCartney sisters were photogenic and articulate and formidable.
    And undoubtedly Thomas Devlins mothers campaign was helped by the fact that she was middle class and articulate. If the young lad had lived just a mile away on the New Lodge Road (rather than Somerton Road) his murderers might have got away with it.

  • apollo293867

    To quote FJH

    “…. undoubtedly Thomas Devlins mothers campaign was helped by the fact that she was middle class and articulate. If the young lad had lived just a mile away on the New Lodge Road (rather than Somerton Road) his murderers might have got away with it.”

    Never was this more true in the Madeline McCann case. Imagine if the parents had been Mr & Mrs Grunge from Dogpoo Lane Grimytown and instead of eating at a Tapas bar they were in the pub? What would the Sun’s coverage have been?

  • JaneJeffers

    ” ….saying on camera that it comforted him that his son died like that……rather than killed like that.”

    What does this mean?

  • FitzjamesHorse

    apollo 293867,
    I fully take your point.
    Within a year of the Madeline case, we had the high case of Shannon Matthews and her quite different family.
    Now it must be said that Shannons mother is now a convicted criminal.
    We also had a bizarre case in Goa, India where a woman best described as a hippy type left her 15 year old daughter with a person who I understand kiilled her.
    Her lifestyle was also questioned.
    But the McCanns are somehow held to a different standard.

  • TellMeMa

    @FitzjamesHorse: Isnt there a kind of Sharia law where the victims family decides (sometimes with the aid of a financial inducement whether convicted murderers live or die?). Are we heading down that road?//

    Victim compensation is not just in Sharia. Brehon Law had a complex system where each person had an honour price. The least was a ball of string for a servant boy (slave). Icelandic law also had an honour price system for victims, but usually the compensation was agreed at a local Thing by the perpetrator and the victim’s family. Sometimes there was disagreement as to the circumstances and sometimes the wrong decision was made.

    After the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 in London, the wives of Flemish merchants who were murdered by the mob in Vintry were allowed to behead some of their attackers. I hope that grisly revenge brought closure.

    Sarah Payne’s mother, Sara, is a really articulate and intelligent woman and I think it was more than just window dressing that she was given that government appointment. Unfortunately she is ill at the moment having had brain tumour (or a stroke) which has left her partly paralysed.

    However, losing loved ones whether by murder or accident or illness is a fact of life. I cannot remember if it was the Buddha or Jesus who told a very sad mother whose son had died to spend a week finding a family who had not had a similar loss. She returned to admit that the Buddha (or Jesus!) was right; and after that she dealt with her loss with less moaning and grieving.

    So the lives of the families of victims are changed by the murder/accident, etc, and there will always be mourning (especially by the mothers) but it is best for them that their lives do not come to a full stop, forever overshadowed by this event. There is learning and moving on, and perhaps even forgiveness.

    What is really cruel, however, is not knowing whether your child/relative is alive or dead. It is nearly impossible to move on in such a circumstance, for example Madeleine McCann and the Missing in NI (the IRA could not remember where they had buried them). I really feel sorry for Madeleine’s mother who, is it said, cries every day for her missing daughter.

    Mothers can be utterly wracked with guilt as James Bulger’s mother was – and she was so obsessed with this that James’s father divorced her. Stephen Lawrence’s parents also divorced because of his murder.

    Though I feel a lot of sympathy for Denise Bulger/Fergus she does not have a right to know what her son’s murderers are doing now, and what Venables has done to be sent back to gaol. I think she has been manipulated by the press and by vigilantes.

    These are terrible events, as were those which occurred in NI since 1969 (and earlier) but it would be good for the victims’ families if they could move on and not be so obsessed about the events if their loved ones are dead.

    There are a lot of other “victims” – of bullying, of this and that and what JaneJeffers said (comment no.1) “Victim status seems extremely coveted in modern Britain” is quite true. It’s been going on for some time at least. The Australians did not call some Brits “whingeing Poms” for nothing – and these Poms weren’t even victims!

  • FitzjamesHorse

    The history to which you of course…history.
    Rightly we are (allegedly) more civilised in terms of Justice.
    No-one actually wants a return to the Peasants Revolt days.
    The point I was making was that in the “West” we appear to deplore the notion of Sharia Law justice. The daily mail rails against it …..but paradoxically the tabloids back the same kinda “mob rule”.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    I think the point is that we would be much pained at the loss of achild in horrific circumstances.

    The pain that knowing our child might grow up to do something horrible is (in that victims view)worse.
    I merely make the point that Victims do not act in the same way.

  • TellMeMa

    FJH: No-one actually wants a return to the Peasants Revolt days.//

    Except The Sun and News of the World (so long as a story sells copies).

    If the tabloids had been around in 1381 they would have had much the same response to events, even though the “Mob” would have terrified them (drunken and unwashed and numbering around 100,000) as it made its way down Fleet Street to burn down the Savoy Palace and so forth.

    Brehon and Icelandic laws were nowhere as cruel as Sharia (no eye for an eye, arms chopped off for theft etc.) They were a way of compensating victims with appropriate “honour” – though sometimes this involved killing the perpetrators and in Ireland at least the highest clan members were often above the law.

  • granni trixie

    I think that if your child dies under any circs it is a crap experience. If it is by anothers hand that adds another dimension to your hurt. However I have observed that in those circs (ie not by natural causes) people can focus on that grievance and think that if only they can put that person behind bars or improve the system for others they will feel better. This is where they make a mistake,however you lose your child,it hurts like hell (I know).

    re the treatment of middle class parents and the |McCartneys: “of whom much is given much will be expected” (my school motto) I would like to think that if my child had been abducted or my brother murdered I would use my education all trhe way.
    I seem to remember at the time that Anne Enright and Malachi ODoherty made class type objections to the McCanns manipulating the media. Ofcours I disagree and these two were just displaying inverted snobbery (sorry Malachi).

    I also note that there has been a pattern during the troubles of mothers turning the hurt into postive contibutions to peace (of which Hylda Armstrong, mentioned in Irish News today is prime example).

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Oh yes granni trixie……but only SOME mothers.
    If we look on the case of Mrs O’Hara in Derry, her son died on Hunger Strike and she wanted no progress.
    Joyce McCarten as well.
    And others.
    The fact is that I know deep down Id have a problem with being the very “forgiving” sotra victim like Alan McBride.
    On the other hand Im glad Im not like how I perceive Willie Fraser.

    Victimhood is not always turned to something….(for want of a better word) creative.
    Some want to turn swords into ploughs
    Others want to turn them into bigger swords.

  • granni trixie

    Joyce McCarten was exactly the sort of mother I had in mind who in effect turned swords in ploughshares. Didnt she have a deprivation/economic renewal analysis – which she tackled by setting up Morningtron Enterprises and a cafe on the Lower Ormeau?. Which is how she caught the eye of Hilary Clinton (remember the awful teapot symbol?)

    If she hadn’t died Joyce’s legacy would still be there.

    I agree about sterotypes of forgivesness,Alan McBride and the selective FAIR.