When exactly do we start listening to all victims and can the past ever become a ‘dead letter’?

‘That’s it, we’ve had our fun,’
The leader said to Kate, Pat’s job is done,
He’ll soon be home.’ But that was not the truth.

Pity for the Wicked, Brian Lynch             

Noel Whelan clearly ‘gets’ the pragmatic reasons (even over five years £190 million is a lot of money) why it might be better to forgo further pursuit of justice for pre Belfast Agreement crimes, but he also nails one reason the political classes jumped to such a great height in unison at the mere raising of the issue:

Larkin has been criticised for not discussing his views in advance with the Executive or with victim groups and for not waiting for the Haass process to conclude. These criticisms are a distraction from the central issue.

It seems in Northern Ireland there will always be some process or some future report people will say should be awaited. There is never an easy time to talk about these issues without treading on the sensitivities of victims. Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, both very sensitive men, learned this when their report was published nearly five years ago. It was finalised after months of careful consideration and consultation but still generated controversy.

Eames and Bradley proposed a commission to probe unresolved cases followed by appropriate remembrance, by amnesty and accompanied by a notional compensation to all victims. None of these has been advanced. Politicians and policymakers simply ignored their report.

Larkin has called the politicians in Northern Ireland and the London and Dublin governments on their failure to agree a comprehensive process around dealing with the past. Their new found unity in response to his suggested solution should be channelled to agreeing and implementing meaningful proposals of their own. [emphasis added]

Ian Parsley highlights why any such solution is unlikely to arise from a political system which (post St Andrews Agreement) has succeeded in nothing quite so well as helping politicians to tie each others hands, or at the very least give them that oh so easy get out clause for doing nothing.

As a first step, what we all have to understand – and “Progressives” more than any – is that to manage any change process is complicated and controversial, and even more so when it is one as painful to many as Northern Ireland’s. First, we have to make the case that change is necessary; then we have to outline the change we seek; and then we have to work out how, as a whole, Northern Ireland can achieve it.

I have no idea how we go about this – if I did, I would share it on this forum! The only thing I am sure of is that what we are currently doing is not working, largely because we think of it in too simplistic terms and because we want politicians to lead the process when they have no motivation to do so. In fact, it is a complex and sensitive route and will require leadership from civic society, who have a greater stake in navigating it.

Meanwhile, we should be exceptionally wary of anyone, from any side (including the broadly “Progressive” one), offering an apparently simple approach to what is a genuinely difficult, testing and multi-faceted issue. [Emphasis added]

Austin Stack, son of Brian Stack who was killed by the IRA in 1983 told the Irish Independent:

Any process must be led by the victims, not by politicians and lawmakers. I spoke to GerryAdams just last week and I told him there can be no amnesty. What we do need is a truth commission based on restorative justice. There cannot be a blanket amnesty. I was shocked and dismayed that someone wants to propel victims into a permanent vacuum where they would never get to the truth.

As Brian Rowan pointed out on RTE’s The Week in Politics (segment starts at 41 mins), all of this is way too complex for Haass to deliver on in the short term. Meanwhile on This Week (MP3 file), it becomes obvious just how difficult it will be deliver when the likes of MRF featured in last week’s Panorama have already had their files destroyed.

The real pain suffered by many victims of the Troubles, whether killed by Paratroops in Derry, by loyalist death squads or in an IRA no warning bomb is not simply the grief or the bloody minded senselessness of it all. Rather it was that they were lied to and lied about to wider society.

The crux of our existential problem is that some of those lies now underpin the very peace process and the strangely insular system it begat.

As Brian has noted:

It is a cruel deception on victims to keep banging on about “justice” in the high sounding manner of those who wallow in self deception and infinitely prefer the shadow to the substance and call it “principle”.

I also agree with Anne Cadwallader (MP3) when she says that the primary claim that many victims want to make falls far short of such far reaching “justice”. Marian Finucane’s interview with Michael and Agnes McConville (33 mins) is well worth setting the time aside to listen to in this regard.

The paradox is that Northern Ireland remains, at this stage, a low trust society. And as with many such societies as individuals we want the government to make it all better by regulating us into some new form of better society, and make all the bad stuff from the past just go away.

The purpose of a deliberately weakened administration was to make partnership the only viable means of making things work in Northern Ireland. Instead our political class has struggled to forge a partnership they can sell to their own bases. Compromise remains a dirty word, and trust is spare.

Professor John Brewer has one of a number of interesting contributions over at Eamonn’s blog. He is similarly sceptical of the likelihood of success of a deluge of claims currently being driven through the court system:

Who gains from the myth that truth and justice are deliverable? This is in the light of the lawyers who benefit from large legal fees, politicians who use victims as footballs, and celebrity victims support groups who would be without a raison d’étre.

Are victims being lied to and deceived? It is implied that victims are being deceived by those with something to hide, but are they also being deceived by politicians, lawyers and celebrity victim support groups in being told that justice and truth are deliverable when they’re not or only imperfectly so.

Martin McGuinness in an interview screened in a documentary due to air on TV3 tonight, notes:

I’m very reluctant to say anything that would destabilise the present or the future. There is any amount of negative elements out there that would use anything that I say in this interview against the process – I’m not going to give them that luxury.

Quite. How much do we really want or need to know about what the deputy First Minister got up to during his war? And how far is it safe to dig?

Our default ‘decision’ (because it’s been left to the discretion, capacity and motivations of various individuals and groups) has largely been to shove the police and a few dissenters into the judicial mill, and let politicians face the not entirely toothless court of public opinion.

Those queuing and waiting patiently may be sincerely optimistic about their chances of finding out the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Without some sort of amnesty to protect the perpetrators, there is little likelihood of progress. Yet with one, they have no guarantees either.

Where do the questions stop? For some of the Bloody Sunday families, the recognition by the state of the guilt of the state was enough. Others want prosecutions.

As we noted in A Long Peace more than ten years ago turning to the future does not mean burying the past. But nor is it about grandiose gestures, or sudden cures. It requires more modesty and greater patience. To quote Umberto Eco from that time:

‘Universal peace is like the desire for immortality: so difficult to achieve that religions promise immortality not before but after death. However, a small peace is like the act of a doctor who cures a wound: not a promise of immortality, but at least a way to postpone death.’

But as Peter Preston gloomily predicted back in 2007, what’s largely been at play here is a “war of survival and truth, in their minds, waged across a canyon of distrust. The moderates of history, the ones who stood against violence and won Nobel prizes, didn’t win”.

In this febrile quest for partial ‘truth’ about our past (in which all our futures are left to fend for themselves) are we sure we can handle it?

“You say there’s nothing that you know for sure? What about whether you have a nose? No? But what’s that thing just south of your eyes and north of your mouth? And what’s holding your glasses up?”

Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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  • Two very different questions.
    1 When do we start listening to victims?
    2 Can the Past ever become a dead letter?

    These questions are asked and there is always a degree of nuance but realistically nobody in power pays anything other than lip service.
    The second question is easier.
    The answer is….sometimes.
    The Troubles did not happen in “Northern Ireland”. They only happened in parts of “Northern Ireland” and the nature changed. Really the “Troubles” only affected ordinary people in places that important people only passed thru.
    For me the Troubles in West Belfast 1969-1979 was a different atmosphere to Dungannon to 1982 or to small rural villages thereafter. The Troubles were different in a NIHE estate to a semi-detached bungalow…indeed that was the attraction of the bungalow.
    If you were not on the Falls or the Shankill, the Troubles didnt matter that much. Nor did it matter that much when we physically left and pretended we had an emotional attachment.
    It depends what happened to “us”.
    Of course all of us can go thru “Lost Lives” and pick out names.
    But certainly in my case, none really close enough that I think about it on a daily basis.
    And even for people who suffered…beyond the anecdotes we tell our American friends….there is no uniformity.
    Some victims hold the memory as personal and sacred….for others its public and loud.
    I’m glad no parent, wife or child of mine was a victim. Because the experience would have changed me from the half decent person I was brought up to be …into a raging embittered person. Thats how I am.
    Just do me a bad turn and I will resent it for years.

    So I understand fully the more entrenched victims. And yet they are the very same “off message” victims that Officialdom has marginalised. Officialdom does not want to appoint them to an organisation or parade them for visiting signatories. They are the “wrong kind” of victim and would undermine rather than bear witness to the narrative from 1998.
    Actually thats what we do….we identify all kinds of voices as the narrative that we want.
    We want the “right kind” of ex-combatant.
    We want the “right kind” of clergyman-woman.
    We want the “right kind” of victim.
    And later this week there is a course on “Peace Journalism” for the “right kind” of journalist.

    So listening to “all victims” (even recognising some want to say nothing) is important but only in the context that we recognise that nobody can be excluded.
    WHEN do we do this?
    Well…when and if we are allowed.
    There are no victors so we can make no demands.
    And we have given the British State, IRA and Special Branch the veto on their own secrets…and hypocritically they complain that “Themmuns” are not as open as “we” are.
    Of course the reality is that in the name of keeping the peace or simply being in power, the main players are protecting each other’s secrets.

    It is of course a disgrace.
    And some might say “not in my name…I didnt vote for this” but it is the logical out working.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think that’s broadly right FJH.

    Tom Kelly in the IN today suggests that this really about how we talk about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to our children and grandchildren. That would certainly be a very nice place to be, but it is not where we are.

    Many people (probably most unionists, and a fair few nationalists) swallowed hard when people who had done some pretty bad things (albeit for what they thought were good and noble reasons at the time) appeared at the top of the Stormont administration.

    Some of those same people now argue that for the sake of victims British soldiers and policemen must be put under investigation and brought before the courts, whilst arguing that investigations of allegations against them are ‘politically motivated’.

    Take as axiomatic that all victims have a right to expect the justice system would and could deliver if it had not already had its guns spiked by the urbane deal with the British state which gives most of these wo/men the freedom to peacefully pursue their own ends.

    And we have here a fair quantum of double think.

  • Brian Walker

    The biggest obstacle to dealing with the past rationally is treating it first as a political issue. Now of course politics can’t be avoided but when political positions fail to yield results why not look at the issues themselves for a change?
    Basic questions are not even asked in preference for making the usual chorus of condemnation.

    How close to an end to prosecutions have we reached already?

    If it is close, is it not visiting a cruel deception on victims to hold out hopes for justice in court?

    What is the overview of the record of the HET, so far largely limited to individual disclosure to families?

    Is either a wholesale or partial re-examination of the HET record merited or necessary?

    Even without a formal end to prosecutions, might access to archives be sufficient to tell and share stories of what happened, compatible with the human rights of all concerned?

  • “whether killed by Paratroops in Derry, by loyalist death squads or in an IRA no warning bomb is not simply the grief or the bloody minded senselessness of it all.”

    Just a brief qualification. Bombs, with or without warning, can be lethal as illustrated by the fate of the late John Conley almost forty years ago in Garvagh. I didn’t know John but when I was a youngster I spent part of my summer holiday with relatives at Ballylintagh and this summer a genealogy query from friends visiting from Birmingham led me straight to this Conley family:

    There was an old man in Bridge Street called Jimmy Wade .. John Conley became very concerned for Jimmy. Half way down the street he decided to return and give the door another knock. Of course the bomb exploded. Two pieces of shrapnel struck John on the leg and another piece of shrapnel entered at the side laces of Johns’ flak jacket and caused a fatal wound.

    Presumably John and members of the loyalist and republican ‘death squads’ would all be listed by some as combatants, but not by me.

  • tacapall

    “Presumably John and members of the loyalist and republican ‘death squads’ would all be listed by some as combatants, but not by me”

    Thats the crux Nevin although you see John as not being one of those “Bad Apples” what of those bad apples killed by the IRA, are they still viewed as victims, going by Jeffery Donaldsons attempt to define a victim, those bad apples would be classed as victims while any IRA,INLA,UDA,UVF volounteer killed would not be classed as victims whether they had ever been convicted or not. Either every person killed as a result of the past conflict was a victim or they were all casualties of war. How do we know the bad apples from the good, how do we know every police officer and soldier who was killed carried out his duty to the letter of the law. In all those combatants who were killed, is there a possibility that there were good IRA or INLA apples amongst the bad, were there good UVF or UDA apples amongst the bad. Im not defending anyone but surely taking into consideration the sheer volume of wrongdoings and murders carried out by those who were supposed to uphold the law you cannot give a blanket amnesty to one side while pointing the accusing finger at the other.

  • tacapall, I sense neither goodness nor even humanity in the actions of those who planted the bomb in Garvagh that night; John’s humanitarian actions stand out in sharp contrast to theirs.

    I agree that paramilitaries are quite a mixed if not a mixed-up bunch; the bombers could have been loving fathers, even doting grandfathers for all we know.

    Some police officers and other civil servants will also have been paramilitaries or will have provided information that will have assisted paramilitary activities.

    Those who helped set otherwise decent folks at each others’ throats also bear a measure of culpability. As I’ve said many times, I was fortunate to have adopted Ray Davey as a role model and, more especially, not to have grown up in one of our many historical hot-spots.

  • aquifer

    The Attorney General’s suggestion may help us listen to victims as victims better, when there is little prospect of legal retribution for the wrongs suffered. It is unfair to leave an expectation that their hurt will ever be balanced by any punishment of the perpetrators, for the overwhelming majority can never get that justice.

    Leaving the truth out in the open field for the historians may be safer than having scrums of opposing teams trying to smuggle it forward, or having perpetrators centre stage in court with narratives redacted or rehearsed.

  • BarneyT

    tacapall : “you cannot give a blanket amnesty to one side while pointing the accusing finger at the other”

    absolutely. People speak of a hierarchy of victims and by extension that implies a hierarchy of perpetrators.

    If and I mean if we are talking about an amnesty, it must be across the board and everyone has to stomach it, as painful as it might be. It will initially cause a lot of pain and anguish.

    For me an amnesty should be the catalyst for the truth or at least as much as possible, to emerge. I don’t advocate an amnesty toute seul.

    People even within communities and even within the families of victims rationalise events differently. When I was about 8 and younger cousin of mine was killed by a landmine. My father and many other relatives were enraged. However, the direct family blamed the presence of the British Army, as without them, no mine would have been placed. Interesting.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thank you for offering such a personal story Barney T. Can I genuinely and respectfully ask two follow up questions?

    – What did you think at the time, re culpability?

    – What do you think now?

    (Do please ignore if it is too personal.)

  • tacapall

    Barney I dont believe there will be an amnesty I believe there will be a general agreement to dedicate less resources or none at all investigating conflict related cases pre the GFA hence the moves being made by the DUP to define a victim at Westminister, another Anns Law that will creatre loopholes for one side at the expense of the other, the anyone charged with a terrorist offence cant be a victim clause is a case point. How many unarmed republicans were murdered in shoot to kill cases or how many ex prisoners were murdered because their personal details were handed to pro British murder gangs like the UDA or UVF by members of the RUC or UDR and British intelligence. Although the victims wont get justice they will occupy the moral high ground that Unionism desperately seeks, a sort of comfort blanket that they believe will absolve them of past sins. Of course the option will still be open for the PSNI or the British, if need be, to trawl for evidence or actively pursue individuals for pre GFA conflict related crimes who they believe are a threat to the peace process or to the security of the state.

  • BarneyT

    No problem Mick. Firstly I was distraught. At that age I would have been reasonably aware of the situation (mid 70s). I would have been guided by parents that were republican and as far as I could see at the meagre age of 8 a) wanted and united Ireland through peaceful means b) were driven by the need to address social problems in N Ireland\The North. I would have worded it differently then 🙂

    At the time I saw it plainly. Those who planted\triggered the mine, killed my cousin, so for that reason I saw the IRA as a dangerous organisation as any of us could die the same way, whilst walking to and from school. I never walked on a grass verge again.

    It very much galvanised my opinions then and for years after.

    What do I think now?

    Well, I have not changed much regarding the event and I see many of the incidents as avoidable and pointless. It was a case of the IRA killing within their own community, deliberate or not.

    I understand what drove the IRA to take the path they did, as much as I disagree with it, but this understanding dissipates when I dwell on the indiscriminate nature of many of their actions.

    I can see that for a long time talking to the British was seen as a pointless exercise and combined with pressures from their own community (I Ran Away) they took the path they did. This path split not only the republicans but also families and friends, as you will know of course. Its perhaps happening again today but on a smaller scale.

    However, any insurrection or revolution is debased when you fail to direct your attacks at your enemy, accept unacceptable collateral damage and move on to your next engagement without a change of direction, policy or possibly thought. There was a time to say “No, that’s enough” but it didn’t happen, not even when such a tragedy occurred, and many like it.

    The issue in the north needed to be dealt with for sure and I wonder what would have happened if the response to Bloody Sunday and other incidents was different…different through a political and social response rather than a war. Easy to say as those incidents radicalised the obvious candidates and also the very unexpected.

    I raised this personal matter thinking about direct and indirect victims of the conflict and the issue of prosecution or amnesty. Seemingly those that share a bereavement can see and rationalise the event in different ways. Some of my family blame the army. Some blame the IRA and others fall in the middle somewhere, perhaps reconciled to the fact that is was not intended, it was a horrible time and of course a tragedy. I am not sure which of the three camps is most likely to move on.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks Barney.