“That’s the only way I can put,” he said “they sleep with the victims.”

I was struck by Michael D Higgins’ interview with the BBC’s Fergal Keane:

He said he could not ask the families of victims to put the past behind them. Society could not afford to wipe out the memory of violence, he said. “I think that there is very significant work to do,” he said.

“Affecting a kind of amnesia is of no value to you. You are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows… we must be of assistance to each other in coming to understand how we get to a new place.

Brian Rowan has a powerful piece in which he reflects personally on a new production called Quietly from the Abbey:

From my own reporting experience, I will always remember an interview with a former loyalist life sentence prisoner; remember it because of the words spoken and what they meant and, then, what happened next.

It was part of the debate about prisoner releases versus victims rights – and I interviewed him as we edged away from conflict and began that journey towards peace. He described to me prisoners sleeping with the victims.

“That’s the only way I can put,” he said “they sleep with the victims.”

Just think of those words – SLEEP WITH THE VICTIMS, meaning, of course, that they couldn’t sleep with their conscience – that he couldn’t sleep with his conscience.

The prisoners, he told me, “have to live with what’s happened in the past”.

Billy Giles spent long years in jail and, six months after that interview, he took his own life – no longer able to sleep with the victims, no longer able to sleep with what happened.

It put me mind of this story from the US:

Volunteers in dark green hooded sweatshirts spread out across the National Mall on Thursday, planting 1,892 small American flags in the grass between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Each flag represented a veteran who had committed suicide since Jan. 1, a figure that amounts to 22 deaths each day.

This is one of the largely unheard corollaries of war: the real distress in men like Billy Hunter and Brendan Hughes, who clearly internalised much of the distress they’d caused to others in the past.

We hear surprisingly little from these men and women, never mind their victims.

There are in fact, only a limited amount of things that can be done for them, although undoubtedly just hearing their voices and their experiences is an important part of ‘letting go’ rather than healing as such.

What we noted back in 2003 was not that far removed from what still needs to happen now:

Turning to the future cannot mean burying the past. As John Dunlop warns us, ‘It would be callous for a community to travel into the future and leave grieving people behind.’

The greatest tribute to those who have suffered, however, is to build on their sacrifices. Since the peace process began, Northern Ireland has had lavished upon it a degree of attention that dwarfs both the size of its population and the seriousness of its problems.

Presidents and prime ministers clear diaries for the leaders of parties representing a few hundred thousand people. The media follow the peace process with great respect and curiosity. Martial politicians attract attention as they spar for the cameras, stentorian-voiced.

But the world’s attention is now moving on and the mundane work of reconstruction must begin. This is not about grandiose gestures, nor sudden cures. It is both more modest and more patient.

‘Universal peace is like the desire for immortality: so difficult to achieve that religions promise immortality not before but after death,’ Umberto Eco warns us.

‘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.’

There is no fix all cure for what was done to us, or what we did to each other. Reconciliation is partial and unpredicable process. It is neither moral or right to demand it from people who have already lost so much.

We need much more of the empathy, compassion and imagination that Rowan traces here. It’s how we avoid becoming the same glassy eyed automatons that walzed us in to the troubles forty plus years ago.

And it is also how new stories of who we are and what we can do will begin to take root.

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  • Turgon

    Higgins seems about right on this whilst both Rowan and Dunlop are wrong, at best muisguided and quite possibly dishonest.

    We cannot expect victims to forget the past. They need to be listened to and their views acted on. The overwhelming majority of victims opposed amnesties etc. as has been demonstrated by Eames Bradley’s research (which they conveniently ignored) and afterwards. Most victims want justice.

    Turning to the suggestion “The greatest tribute to those who have suffered, however, is to build on their sacrifices.”

    This is a false premise. Most did not make a sacrifice in that couscious way. The police and army maybe but their view of their sacrifice and what they wanted may be quite different to what we have now. The terrorists may have felt they were making a sacrifice but they certainly had different aims to the security forces. The others murdered: shoppers, children etc. were making absolutely no sacrifice: they were murdered.

    This sort of emotional appeal in the absence of any factual basis is a dishonest fiction which is too often used to claim that we must make changes in specific political directions.

    If we were to make changes specifically to honour the dead we would need to ask their relatives about their views and that brings us back to the initial position. Most relatives want justice.

    Turning finally (finally because they are the least important) to the terrorists. They may be haunted by the murderers they committed: Good, Good, Good. So they should be. Nonsense from terrorist thugs about them “sleeping with the victims” does not even deserve to be repeated unless it is to scoff at their self regarding, self pitying nonsense. They committed those foul crimes. They must live with the consequences.

    Personally I have never believed in either the death penalty nor that life should mean life. However, a murderer should have a vastly less pleasant life than s/he would have had otherwise. Part of that should indeed be being haunted by the crime they committed.

    Helping those emotionally distressed by the results of their own wickedness should be done but should be personal not societial. It is about leading these people to acceptance of their crimes and repentance be that secular or religious.

    We should not in any way whatsoever absolve the murderers in private or public and private support should be personal not pretending they are in some way analogous to innocent victims. They (the murderers) are the sole authors of their own victimhood. Indeed such public nonsense may hurt these terrorists. The ones who have recovered best seem to be those who have recognised the utter wickedness of their crimes, accepted their own personal responsibility and kept away from public “post troubles porn” reconcillation.

    “Billy Giles spent long years in jail and, six months after that interview, he took his own life – no longer able to sleep with the victims, no longer able to sleep with what happened”

    It is sad that Giles took his own life but the critical point is not “no longer able to sleep with what happened” but no longer able to sleep with what he did. Help him certainly but the best help is to help him understand the wickedness he committed and help him repent (secularly or religiously).

  • Mick Fealty


    There’s a fine line here. There’s things being missed on both sides of the argument. One, there is a deal already in place for these folk. That’s a product of politics. You or I may not like it, but it is a fact. Politics can be powerful.

    I think what this highlights is that justice is not the last word on suffering. I had a Scots friend, name of Quinn, who’d fought in WWII from start to finish. He was at Monte Casino, and on the Q Ships that did the northern convoy.

    He’d joined a local Ayreshire regiment in 1938 and fully expected to return to the army full time in 1945. However when the time came the army rejected him because he’d developed a stammer when his boat was blasted to kingdom come on of the convoys and he was ‘let go’.

    He grieved for six months, tramping the country sleeping in barns and getting food where he could and never spoke to a soul. It took him most of his remaining adult life to re-integrate into normal society.

    Returning to topic again, whether you see these guys as they do, part of an army, or as a terrorist band or criminal conspiracy these miseries are inevitable and private experiences. In some cases they go on re-traumatising the victims because some of them cannot stop rehearsing their deeds in front of others.

    That there is such distress for me, is on one level reassuring that many of these guys remain human regardless of what they have done for their ‘greater cause’.

    Back to the politics of it. The only democratically mandated deal for old offences remains what it was when the GFA was struck. Two years and you are out. Full sentence after that.

    The real corrosion of the Peace Process™ era has been the private settlements amongst our political elites that were not part of the political deal.

    This itself corrodes the possibility of compassion, because it is a breach of trust. Not least with the victims themselves.

    Robust engagement over the politics of this means we might eventually stand some chance of creating space for the simple human compassion required for building as near ‘normal’ a society as Northern Ireland is likely to see.

  • keano10

    The whole thing is a mess and I do’nt believe that there will ever be agreement on how to manage and placate the distress of the families of those victims.

    I lost a relative during the troubles. He was an innocent Catholic who was abducted by the UVF. He was found dead in a field the next morning having been shot several times through the head.

    We were visited by The Historical Enquiries Team who told us the names of two men whom they were certain had helped to commit his murder. One of the men had been questioned by police about the murder but was then mysteriously released without charge by a magistrate when appearing in court on another related charge. The clear implication was that this person was a Loyalist informer. The gang apparently then went on to murder a number of other Catholics in the subsequent years.

    I found the whole HET experience deeply distressing and it left me drained emotionally. There was evidence that my relative had attempted to escape by crawling through the field after being shot the first time. Unbelievably traumatic.

    I can never gain anything from any sort of manufactured victims process. The people who murdered him were psychopathic killers who went on to kill again many times afterwards. The State allowed some of them to continue with their activities in return for information.

    Ultimately, there never will be any process of healing for many of us who lost relatives. I do not want to go through all of that again. To hear about the lies and cover-up’s. It is both soul-destroying and pointless.

  • Its about “choice” isnt it?
    Its a lpng time since Ive heard people speak about a “hierarchy of victims”
    I dont think in terms of hierarchy …I just think some people made choices…to be combatants.
    But I dont know anyone who chose to be a victim.
    The combatants including the families of dead ones have their own support system. If Society is going to do something for the victims who had no choice then Id support it….but there will always be people like myself and Turgon who will be wary of inclusive.
    Different Gatekeepers will be wary of Different “Victims”.

    If we cant agree, its better to disagree. Better that organisations and disparate victims groups honour their own in a piecemeal way.
    It is at least …honest.
    A couple of times a year I get to remember some individuals I knew.
    They included a RUC member. More than one Republican. And quite a few ordinary people, mostly (because of my own background)….but not exclusively Catholic.
    They might be together in my own memory because I was at school with them, lived beside them, worked with them…..but in no other sense do they belong “together” in some great (expensive) memorial garden.
    Too many of their own relatives dont want that.
    The relatives dont “need” it.
    The people who seem to want this sort of thing. …the people who tell us that WE/SOCIETY needs it….rarely ever sat foot on the Falls Road or could point to Claudy on a map.
    Nor would they have volunteered to be a RUC Reserve or in UDR.
    Or for that matter been a terrorist.
    Rather after decades of glimpsing the Troubles on a TV screen “they” need all this to make “them” feel better.

    We should not allow it.

  • In 30 years time we will look back and see that we had some form of post conflict transformation which was done one conversation at a time, one seemingly failed initiative after another (HET, Eames Bradley, tribunals, inquiries, blogging, media investigations, public campaigns, victims groups, memorials, marches). We just won’t have had a national-based campaign because none of us would allow the other to drive it, to set it up and manage it for fear that it would be hi-jacked or that it got sullied by associating one type of victim with another. We will wear ourselves and each other down to the point where we will say there is little left to try so we’ll shut up now and go about our business with a grudge and a resignation.

    What we should have done back in the post conflict years was to use whatever good grace had been created to say sorry to each other and move on with a quasi judicial process that would have met 70% of everyones expectations. It’s nearly too late now because the goodwill bonus has all been spent.

  • Zig70

    An early lesson for me was that Shylock was bad for society. Victims don’t get justice day and daily in the courts. So many putting fine prose around what they surely know they can’t deliver. Every one deserves justice but are they going to get it? Most likely no and to raise their hopes needlessly is immoral, especially so if you do for political gain.

  • Turgon

    I think you are quite right that any overarching process is unacceptable. However, it always was.

    In “the post conflict years” there was absolutely not a consensus on these issues no more than there is now. Furthermore we most definitely should not have had the “good grace” nor anything else to “say sorry to each other and move on.” There was absolutely no mandate to do that. Eames Bradley was roundly rejected as the moral terpitude which it was. Attempting to create such processes is one of the reasons that what you call “goodwill” has gone. Actually in regard to forgetting the loathsome crimes of the past there was not any good will shown by normal people to the criminals of whatever hue.

    I have nothing I need to apologise for nor that I need to be apologised to regarding. That holds good for most people here in Northern Ireland. I was neither victim nor victimiser: just like FJH and most of us.

    There are those who need to apologise: they are the criminals. There are those who need apologised to – the victims. keano 10 sounds like he is deserving of an apology. However, it is his and his family’s right to decide wether they want an apology or justice or whatever.

    Each set of victims has that right and most of those victims mainly want justice not an apology. Denying them that justice seems to be what most of “conflict resolution”, “transformational justice”, “truth” etc. etc. is actually about. Pretending to sugar coat such denial of justice is the business of the likes of “Transitional Justice.” Such lies have been repeatedly rejected and will continue to be so. If that leaves most victims with nothing that seems more acceptable to most of them than the pretences of the “Conflict Resolutions” who the more I see of them the more I agree with FJH that actually what they want from these processes is mainly, maybe solely, for themselves.

  • Granni Trixie

    “clearly internalised the distress caused”
    On what do you base this claim about BH Mick?

    It’s a while since I read Brendan Hughes account but I remember that he came a cross as someone lacking empathy. Rather, he seemed to have a boys own zeal for being an ops man.

  • aquifer

    A lot of the memorials I see seem to be there for perps not victims.

    I guess victims do not usually have a supporters club.

  • Turgon

    As a society (and individuals within it) we have to accept our part in what happened. The whole saga came from somewhere, caused by something, prolonged by something, and is right now going nowhere. I could be naive and say that was all down to a few people, but that wasn’t the case. As a society (or two nations of people) we let it continue because we didn’t challenge and change our perceptions of what was just and unjust, nor did we take enough indignation onto the streets, nor challenge our friends and family on their views. Some did. Most didn’t. I think that is worth saying sorry for. As well as saying sorry you need someone to hear it.

    Right now I don’t think that many beyond a tiny minority of people from both sides have genuinely heard the other sides stories, issues, insights, fears, and aspirations – just megaphone diplomacy – not dialogue. Those who deign to try it get scorned and mocked for not being serious players, the serious players who try it get stoned and picketed.

    Right now there are those who would stop someone going to a funeral, or stop someone shaking hands with a religious leader, or who would vote for a detrimental character – just to keep someone from getting power.

    That is the basis of the sorry that is genuinely needed to allow the other processes to have any meaning that goes beyond the cold, sterile pyrrhic outcomes of a judicial process.

    Do I think it will happen? Do I heck.

  • notimetoshine

    I have to say that personally I don’t have a great knowledge of the victims issue. I suppose one of the reasons is that many of the events that created these victims was well before my time, it seems almost remote to me, however the pain and grief suffered by victims and their families is obviously real and with us today.

    Maybe we need to stop this politicisation of victims and all the arguments that go with it and just support victims and support them as best as we can.

    Let’s not have a truth and reconciliation commission, let’s not have the victims issue become a political football. Maybe we need to just keep on the way we currently deal with victims but with a few tweaks. Have a beefed up historical enquiries team with no limits on their investigative capacities or some other such police unit to do it. Provide the best social/psychological/economic help to victims there can be through organisations such as victims support or other charitable organisations.

    Accept the fact that those who committed crimes whatever their intention or ideology may have been have committed crimes for which there can be no justification and accept the hurt, pain and suffering they caused. No exceptions, no buts, no justifications.

    And maybe for the good of all involved remove ex paramilitaries from the discourse and process. If they or their purported organisations committed these crimes that created victims, they need to shut up, accept responsibility and do everything they can to support investigations into troubles related criminality.

  • Alan N/Ards

    I never met Billy Giles but I knew of him through friends. I do know that he suffered greatly for the heinous crime that he committed. The fact that he took his own life proves that. I wonder how many troubles related ex lifers have also committed suicide?

    I do understand where Turgon is coming from regarding ex lifers. The lack of remorse shown by many of these people and their organisations regarding the murders that they committed is appalling. Saying that you regret having had to kill a person for the cause is not enough. That is not remorse. There is no doubt that Billy Giles came to realise this and suffered a mental hell.

    I’m sure that there are people who would say that he and all other ex lifers deserve to suffer and while I understand that sentiment, I believe that two wrongs don’t make a right.

  • Granni Trixie

    I so agree with your sentiments as there is a world of difference (it seems to me) between someone who gasps the wrong they have done to others which they are sorry for and someone who “regrets” but implies they would do it again. IRA people in particular seem to be brainwashed into not accepting their legacy of wreaking individual and family lives ( as well as literally town centres). The cause seems to trump common humanity.

  • I think its natural that we should have a certain sympathy for those in a mental hell.
    The question arises as to how far we should go to facilitate “regret”, “remorse”, “contrition” or whatever nuanced word that the combatants want to use.
    These people may owe Society “something” . Personally Id just let it go.
    But I certainly dont think Society owes them anything.
    Frankly…if we set aside a Monday for loyalist paramilitaries to march to the City Hall and proclaim their regret etc….they would not do it.
    And if we set aside Tuesday for Republicans to do the same …they wouldnt do it.
    And if we set aside Wednedsay for the British and NIO….they wouldnt do it.

    But if we chose Thursday as a Great Day of Atonement,where we could all proclaim ourselves as victims and victimisers…then we could hire the Waterfront Hall…and the loyalist, republican and British combatants would all be in the best seats with their handpicked victims in the lesser seats.
    And they would be all beating their breasts.
    For its this simple…the ex-combatants NEED their victims as cover for their nuanced reconciliation. And real victims dont need the ex-combatants.
    Cue…photogenic Protestant Girl and Catholic Boy, born on Good Friday 1998 to make speeches.
    Cue another from an Integrated School to read us a wee poem.
    All under the tearful eyes of the Conflict Resolutionists.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Turgon’s first post has it completely right.

    There is a simpler answer to all this than many will concede. When people start taking responsibility for what they did, tell the truth of that and apologise where needed, we are on the way.

    What things need apologising for? Rough guide – if it was a crime (whether you were caught and convicted or not), such as murder, bombing, use of too much force if you were in the security forces, etc, tell the truth about it and apologise. Crimes, remember, can be committed by anyone, including state forces, so this same standard applies fairly to everyone.

    And the definition of crime need not be down to your views of Northern Ireland: the vast majority of legal systems around the world treat the same things as crimes.

    This would not bring justice on its own, but it would be transformative.

    What isn’t transformative is, with respect, Brian Rowan’s line of looking at everyone purely subjectively in terms of their own suffering, as if we had no objective standards in our society. Terrorists do not deserve sympathy and we twist ourselves into incoherence if we try and include them in societal healing. They must live with themselves and I too hope they find that very, very difficult. I extend that to any rogue members of the security forces who killed or injured people unnecessarily, though of course we need to cut them a lot of slack given the extreme dangers of anti-terrorist tasks they were legally obliged to do.

  • MU
    “Terrorists do not deserve sympathy and we twist ourselves into incoherence if we try and include them in societal healing. They must live with themselves and I too hope they find that very, very difficult. I extend that to any rogue members of the security forces who killed or injured people unnecessarily, though of course we need to cut them a lot of slack given the extreme dangers of anti-terrorist tasks they were legally obliged to do.”

    In this passage you flag up every reason why there hasn’t been a formal truth process. You have judged who must apologise and who shouldn’t. You are looking at it through MU’s eyes, not anyone else’s.

    During the troubles every person in Northern Ireland and many further afield have either done something or not done something that they could have. That’s where the transformation is to be found, not in judgement but in taking responsibility for our own part.

    Much of those admissions will be benign, many others aren’t but until they are expressed there is no way of knowing that they were significant.

    I know deep down this is an unrealistic expectation of our society but I have no idea why it needs to be impossible. I’d imagine a statesman of genuine outreach could show all the snivelling shirkers, denialists, and excusers on both sides how to man up and admit what their intentions were, as well as their deeds.

    It can’t be forced, it is a voluntary participation and it is something that the “conflict revolutionists” so despised by this parish, were able to deliver. That is genuine transformation – not some dopey blame game you’re more likely to see in a playground, albeit one with a Hunger Striker’s name attached.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    But Michael, I’m not into a dopey “blame game” but nor am I into the dopier “lack of blame game.”

    2 points:

    1. You missed something important I emphasised: “Crimes, remember, can be committed by anyone, including state forces, so this same standard applies fairly to everyone.” I don’t see a “blame game” there, other than that the people who did most wrong should get the most blame. You seem uncomfortable with that proposition. Why?

    2. There are big problems with the “we were all guilty” approach: (1) it is unfair, as it effectively shifts a lot of the guilt onto people who did nothing wrong other than be in Northern Ireland, and away from those who maimed and killed. (2) it renders human experience ultimately meaningless by pretending underlying moral hierarchies don’t exist.

    The end result is that the guilty are comforted that they were victims of circumstance rather than active agents, many innocent victims are made to feel their suffering was their fault, and the rest of us are left feeling our society is without a moral compass.

    This latter point is the big one – and I think there is a growing sense that the silent majority, Protestant and Catholic, have reached the end of their tether on that. We need an end to the moral obfuscating. I get that it’s complex – I’ve studied legal philosophy among other things to a decent level – but we need a basic reconnection between justice and the people over the Troubles.

    What I’m arguing for is, unapologetically, is for us to come together as a society to make objective moral judgements. Not on every little thing, but on the big things that, if we’re honest, are beyond real moral argument. And what I’m saying is that we don’t need to think too hard about what’s in or out – the law has a framework for deciding which activities society outlaws and it also identifies which are the most serious.

    The dopey thing, I’m afraid, is to misunderstand post-modern, relativist conceptions of justice to mean that some kind of objectively recognised justice is unachievable. Clearly this cannot be the case, as we have, for example, a criminal justice system which is able to make absolute decisions and these are broadly accepted. Northern Ireland has its own history – everywhere does – but it is not of another world. Moral standards apply in NI as much as anywhere. The criminal law reflects the very least that we expect of each other morally – it is not ambitious – and there are many wrongs that it does not cover. But it does identify and deal with the most serious ones. So this is why I think its principles are a good starting point for identifying what the major wrong were, who did wrong, to what extent. (I’m not talking about court here, just legal reasoning, applied to the kind of historical facts established by the kind of historical commission recommended by Arkiv). Morality can be contested, the criminal law less so, hence the latter can perhaps serve as a proxy, to help us at least talk about the wrongs that were done and who was responsible for them.

    Don’t think that because morality is “subjective” that there can be no objective moral standards we hold fellow citizens to. That is simply bogus and ultimately a gospel of despair and a dead end. Hope lies in clear, precise facts and individual responsibility here. Everyone must look at themselves but it’s clear that some ought to have considerably more soul-searching to do than others. We’ve been ducking that for 15 years and it’s time for a proper reckoning. We have nothing to lose. The only people that do are SF and they will no doubt try everything in their power to stop it happening. But I think this time they are up against powerful social forces they cannot control – the writing is on the wall for them. They are played out.