Neither Truth nor Reconciliation January 29, 2009Posted by Garibaldy in Commemoration, Northern Ireland.
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.