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Neither Truth nor Reconciliation January 29, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Commemoration, Northern Ireland.
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Remarkable scenes at yesterday’s launch of the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past report. And, it must be said, depressing ones. (The above link to the BBC has lots of relevant material, including interviews with some families of victims, and see Nuzhound for January 29th for lots more, including editorials from several British and Irish dailies. Also this report from The Times for a video of an angry confrontation between unionist and nationalist relatives, and there was also jostling between Gerry Adams’ security team and the protestors targetting him.) The issue of victims, and dealing with the past, was never going to be anything but highly sensitive and controversial, especially given that the victims were ignored nearly altogether in the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of devolution.

This relates to the issue of what has come to be termed a hierarchy of victims. Naturally enough, the families of dead paramilitaries have been adamant that the sense of loss felt by them be recognised as no different from that of anyone else. Allied to this has been the determination of certain political groupings, the most influential of which is by far PSF, that dead paramilitaries be treated as the equal of dead soldiers and policemen. This difficult issue has been complicated by a great deal of hypocrisy and inconsistency on all sides. Wille Fraser, of FAIR, was prominent among the protestors yesterday. Yet he is on record as saying that loyalist paramilitaries should not have been in gaol. Similarly, while members of nationalist paramilitary groups portray their dead as fallen soldiers, they dismiss loyalist paramilitaries as members of death squads (part of a wider failing to understand that unionists have agency, but that’s another story for another time). The fact that all sides can point to the others and accuse them of hypocrisy helps sustain the bitterness and anger that was displayed yesterday.

Brian Feeney, in his Irish News column yesterday, spoke of the need to “flatten” this hierachy which he claimed had been developing over the last 15 years or so. I confess that I cannot understand this chronology – from day one, all sides have not regarded all victims as equal. There are many who would agree with Feeney, and with the argument that the suffering occasioned by the loss of a loved one violently taken before their time is the same for all. I would certainly agree that there is no hierarchy of suffering among the families of the dead. Whether, however, that is the same thing as no hierarchy of victims is a different matter. Patrick McKenna, an ordinary Catholic man murdered standing outside some shops by the UVF is not a victim of the same type as his murderer, killed by an undercover British army unit moments afterwards. In that context, one was guilty and one was innocent. This is the feeling that motivated Michelle Williamson, who lost her parents in the Shankill bombing that also killed their murderer, to protest yesterday. And yet the gunman and bomber can be portrayed as a victim also, a victim of a set of abnormal and violent political circumstances into which he was born, and which caused him to join a paramilitary group. My own feeling is that we have free will, we bear responsibility for our choices, and their consequences, and that in any story of the Troubles and commemoration of the victims we must take account of that simple fact.

The example of South Africa has loomed large in all the discussions of the need to find a way of coming to terms with our past. Certainly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there proved a tremendously positive experience, healing many wounds, and bringing a sense of closure to the society. Yet that was possible only because the era of Apartheid had come to a definitive end. There was a clear winner and a clear loser in that struggle, and a basic acceptance even among those responsible that Apartheid and the brutality that supported it had been unjust. Clearly, that is not the situation in Northern Ireland. No side will admit that its basic position was the wrong, and no group involved in violence has declared its campaign illegitimate. Nor will any do so, whatever about individual “mistakes”. As we saw yesterday, such a process would only tear the old wounds open, and raise a great deal of animosity. Given the public denials of many players from all sides of things they are responsible for, nor would the same type of honesty be possible without risking wrecking the entire political settlement.

In the context of our deeply-divided and bigotted society, where political divisions continue to run deep, the Eames-Bradley group was never going to be able to produce a report that would come even remotely close to pleasing everybody. I do feel though that the proposal to offer a payment to the relatives of all those killed in the Troubles was destined to unleash fury, and we would have been better off had it not been made. In the way it was leaked to prepare opinion in advance, it all too easily came across as an equivalence of victimhood, and not of family grief, alienating many people – and not just unionists, though maninly them – from the entire report. The whole thing was very ham-fisted.

What then was the alternative? The report was designed to deal not only with victims’ suffering, but also commemoration. Commemoration is both a private and a public act. Look around Northern Ireland, and we can see public acts of commemoration everywhere. Murals and commemorative gardens erected by the paramilitaries on both sides, the plaques and windows dedicated to the RUC and military personnel, and the mounuments to innocent civilians, commemorating events like Kingsmill and McGurk’s Bar. My own sense is that instead of the payment to the families of those who died during the Troubles, the report would have been better off recommending extensive funding of victims’ groups or committees at a local level, which then would have the funds to organise the whatever forms of support mechanisms and commemorations they considered best. This would have been I feel more responsive to the needs of the families, and less controversial, being less suggestive of an equivalence of responsibility as opposed to suffering. I speak though from the privileged position of never having lost a family member due to the Troubles.

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1. Eames-Bradley Report « Garibaldy Blog - January 29, 2009

[...] By Garibaldy I’ve posted on the Eames-Bradley Report, and the reaction to it, over at Cedarlounge should anyone be [...]

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2. WorldbyStorm - January 29, 2009

This is a no win situation isn’t it? Whatever choice was made there would be massive complaints, if it were to victim’s groups the charge would be of politicisation.

I think that we’re into a hugely tricky area as regards equivalence. What you say may well be right, but ascribing judgements as to what is legitimate or illegitimate and we all know where that would go…

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3. Garibaldy - January 29, 2009

I see your point about the charge of policisation, and the danger that any such funds would be used to fund political monuments. But on the whole that would have been less egregious in many people’s eyes than appearing to equate victim with perpetrator through the payouts.

On equivalence. I agree that deciding what is legitimate or illegitimate would be a massive can of worms. And it should be avoided. But simple common sense (or morality) says that victim is not the same of perpetrator. Having said that, there are certainly grey areas e.g. the shooting of unarmed paramilitaries where the status of those killed is open to question. But surely the Report itself is what put equivalence right at the top of the agenda?

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4. WorldbyStorm - January 29, 2009

True, but in a way, given the dispensation how could it be otherwise? And without the dispensation there wouldn’t be ever the sniff of this sort of process.

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5. Dunne and Crescendo - January 29, 2009

Theres no happy ending to this. What about victims who are listed as civilians, and whose families may even believe were civilians, but who were members of paramilitary groups (intelligence operatives for example) or informers?
The Provisional IRA now claim several people who were described as civilians when they were killed (Fergal Caraher, three men in Cappagh, Co. Tyrone); it would be nonsense to think that there arn’t other republican or loyalist paramilitaries who for whatever reason weren’t claimed at the time.
Are the Brits going to reveal all their dead informers?
Why not give each family a million quid? Or 50 euro? The figure is nonsense. I presume the families of those who were killed in the south will get it also.
All bullshit.

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6. Garibaldy - January 29, 2009

D&C,

I think the plan is certainly bad, though something did need to be done to improve recognition of and support for victims, who received next to none for a long time. I take your point about unclaimed people. One side issue here is that members and the families of convicted paramilitaries are ineligible for criminal compensation. There are examples of injured people hiding their allegiance to claim compensation. I assume that families that lost people that also contain convicted paramilitaries will be eligible, creating a bit of a bizarre situation.

I see Davy Adams in the Irish Times saying that we should move past all this. There is something to be said for that argument too.

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7. Garibaldy - January 29, 2009

WBS,

That there was little or no support for victims before the process is an indictment of the governments. They could and should have made better arrangements.

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8. Dunne and Crescendo - January 29, 2009

Yes Davy wants everyone to move on. Especially if their nationalists.

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9. WorldbyStorm - January 29, 2009

Very true Garibaldy, although the power of the governments is sometimes overstated.

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10. Garibaldy - January 29, 2009

That’s certainly true, but you had ridiculous instances such as inquests and trials taking place without the knowledge of families, and more money could have been tasked through the health service.

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11. splinteredsunrise - January 30, 2009

I think Newt hit the nail on the head in the Irish News. If all the families claim their full whack, which they probably won’t, that will add up to £40m. So where’s the other £260m going? Towards the peace industry. A commission reports and recommends setting up four more commissions. Remarkable, but what you’d expect from the north’s great and good.

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12. D. J. P. O'Kane - January 30, 2009

D & C: according to yesterday’s Irish News, the southern state has already implemented a similar compensation scheme. The most disturbing thing about the Eames-Bradley thing is that (apparently) the idea is that this will be the last ever gesture towards dealing with the past. Those who were most affected probably won’t see it like that. . .

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13. Garibaldy - January 30, 2009

I thought Newt cut to the chase myself SS. I’m heartily sick of commissions and reports. We’ve seen where that has got the ending of academic selection. Enough with the self-perpetuating quangocracy.

DJP,

The idea that this will be the end as you say is just mad.

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14. Leveller on the Liffey - January 30, 2009

Leaving aside the qualification that the compensation is for families, maybe Eames/Bradley could have tried to avoid the row by omitting non-state combatants (IRA, UVF, UDA, etc). That would have kept one side of the conflict happy but then what about the community that feels it was on the receiving end of state violence and understood if not supported armed resistance through the IRA and so on?
What classifications do RUC/MI5/British Army informers who were executed while nominally members of the IRA or UVF/UDA come into? In a discriminatory system (i.e. other than the Eames/Bradley model), would the informers’ families be entitled to compensation?
And what about those state forces (i.e. UDR soldiers mainly) who had dual membership of loyalist paramilitary groups? Hypothetical question: If a UDR soldier gunned down by the IRA was subsequently shown to have been a member of or assisting the UVF/UDA, would their family be asked to repay the money?
Maybe the Eames/Bradley remit should have avoided the whole area of compensation altogether.

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15. Garibaldy - January 30, 2009

I think that;s what I was suggesting Leveller. It opened a can of worms unnecessarily.

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16. bolivar - February 1, 2009

heartily sick of commission and reports? really? so no public inquiry into the finucane murder? no saville report so that we can see if the state will acknowledge its role? stop the rosemary nelson inquiry where it is now? no demand for anything on the dublin-monaghan bombings? very blairite of you garibaldy….

my position is this: soak the bastards. my fallback position is this? publish every document related to [both] states’ roles in precipitating, instigating, facilitating political vuiolence in the north. every single document. not 40 years from now. now.

if i were one of the families, particularly one of the families on the side which the state had in its crosshairs, i would tell them to stuff their 12g.

but for the left to give cover to a process which excludes the state, which seems completely contrived to have those on the bottom of the food chain slugging it out over which suffered most, and which allows the state to float above it all, as if they were not the main group responsible for violence here, is ludicrous.

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17. Garibaldy - February 1, 2009

I agree that comment deserves clarification Bolivar. It was not actually about the truth and reconciliation issue, but was about the general avoidance of responsibility by our elected politicians in NI through the means of appointing commissions and reports to examine areas, and thus avoid having to take any decisions. Hence my reference to the academic selection issue, and the self-perpetuating quangocracy. That is a clear case in point where the refusal to bite the bullet and implement an alternative has led to the whole thing being completely and utterly screwed up. Another example is the Bill of Rights. 10 years after the GFA we get a huge and – frankly ridiculous – report which demonstrated all the worst aspects of governance by interest groups, quangos and appointed “experts”, bodies that are often skewed by the political nature of their appointments.

Of course the reality of state involvement on both sides of the border needs revealed. We could add to examples you cite. But the problem is no organisation involved – including the two states – is going to give up all, or even very many, of its secrets. How therefore do we proceed? I’m not sure. I think it’s clear now from the reports that have already been delivered that there was state involvement/collusion with various paramilitaries. The point has been established. Given that fact, the purpose and scope of any proposed investigations needs careful consideration, as do the grounds on which a case is selected.

I hope it is clear that I am not seeking to give cover to any cover up of state involvement. I am though seeking an end to the paralysis of government action through the displacement activity of commissions and reports, and their use to provide jobs for politically-acceptable people.

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