Who are we? What makes a victim in Northern Ireland?

There is perhaps no more emotive or challenging debate abroad in Northern Ireland today, and indeed for some time, than what it means to be a victim. The recent success of the Special Advisors Bill1 together with calls to reconsider the definition of victim and moves against developments at the Maze/Long Kesh site2 are evidence of unrest among those who consider themselves to be victims and it is an unrest that reaches others who also consider their experience to be that of a victim.
In Northern Ireland a victim/survivor is defined by The Victims and Survivors Order NI 2006:

(a) someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident;
someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for an individual mentioned in paragraph (a); or
someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident.

…. an individual may be psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of—
(a) witnessing a conflict-related incident or the consequences of such an incident; or
providing medical or other emergency assistance to an individual in connection with a conflict-related incident.

This definition works from the basis of impact rather than from who you were at the time of the incident. Age, intent, uniform, position – these things are not what define you as a victim/survivor. Rather it is about the impact of violence. Violent acts, whether carried out by representatives of the State or by paramilitary organizations, have taken their toll on individuals in all sorts of ways. Violence has a cost to it and the result of violence is a kind of chaos out of which yet more violence may occur. To resort to violence is to resort to measures that will have human implications, impacts into the future and loss that will persist for ever.
Violence was undoubtedly experienced across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. Members of the security forces stood at the sharp end of everyday attacks and with guns and spirits at the ready they knew they were in the sights of those whose real enemy was the British State. Violence was experienced by those who lined them up in their sights too. Despite being on the end of gun themselves, despite having set the mercury tilt switch, despite scouting the locality and the comings and goings of those who represented the enemy, those others found themselves at the receiving end of violence too. Civilians of all kinds had unwanted violence visited upon them, cross-fire casualities about whom it seems far too trite to say that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Violence has an impact. VIolence has implications for ordinary human beings in an extraordinary context where allegiances have aligned themselves to dominate and secure. In the short term there was confidence, confidence that the outplaying of violence would lead to a better end. The impacts of that violence were often concealed by the short term confidence it seemed to provide. George Orwell wrote:

We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

The frets of the night were calmed because there were those ready to act for us and ours and they were ready to resort to violence. Somehow the violence and the fragile balance of security that it declared seems to have obscured the impact of that chosen violence and still now, fifteen years on from the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, we are facing the depth of the impacts and the ongoing nature of the impacts of violence. In the tangled mess of violence a mark is made on everyone;s lives, but more deeply on the lives of some than others. The tangled mess of violence on the streets patrolled by soldiers with drawn weapons or policed by vigilantes in the night darkness, as the tracer bullets marked their way down town streets, as men in masks stepped into the road to stop and search, as the rhythm of bomb and bullet provided the wallpaper to life and as people went about their business through it all, made its mark on everyone’s lives. As the mess thickened and the way out became more difficult and the way ahead less clear, so the only way might have seemed to be more of the same, despite its impacts, as yet so unclear.
But what of innocence in all of this? Some will argue, and rightly so, that in the mess and violence and excuse for more of the same, that innocence faded. And it faded further as settlement was sought and as negotiating became the way out of violence. Innocence was lost. Who could deny that there was innocence? A child caught in the cross-fire fallen dead to a plastic bullet – innocent? A child beside a parent who lost their life – innocent? An unarmed civilian killed while walking in the street – innocent? A diner on a February evening, the life blown from them – innocent? It would, in my view, be wrong to deny that there has been a loss of innocence or that innocence is hard to come by. We do not know how to hold innocence as we attempt to settle into a future with one another, as we attempt to settle our violent and troubled past.
At the same time The Victims and Survivors Order is not about innocence or guilt. It is not about who people were when whatever happened happened. It is about the implications of what happened. It is about the impacts of violence. The implications of violence are loss, grief, injury, trauma and the challenge of recovery from trauma. It might be said that one of the implications of violence, particularly in protracted contexts like that in the experience of the people of Northern Ireland, is a loss of innocence. The violence brought a loss of innocence – childhoods were not childhoods at all for children were far too aware of what to look out for, what not to kick on the street lest it contained something to damage them, of soldiers in jeeps to be waved at or signalled with two fingers, of what a riot was or a fast evacuation from a building meant. There was a loss of innocence that cut through every level of life and left few, if any, untouched. To establish who a victim/survivor is or is not, is not about establishing guilt or innocence but about establishing that there was a human cost to the violence.
It is, of course, dangerous to open up this emotive issue. I am struggling my way through it and often feel disatisfied with the public thinking that is given to this matter. At the same time I feel sore for those whose lives have been impacted most and I feel sore for the hurts they hold and for the healing that they are seeking. So it is dangerous to open up the subject. But in recent times I, like many before me and with me today, am trying to navigate my way through this territory in the knowledge that somewhere there will be someone who will feel overlooked, ignored and their experience diminished.
Does lying in a ditch listening to the SAS engage with your comrade and then shoot him dead make you a victim/survivor? Does the impact of that event count? Does a shooting which led you to join up, either on the state side or the paramilitary side, make you a victim/survivor? Does the experience of watching bodies, or more likely body parts, being lifted from the road make you a victim/survivor? Does the injury you carry in body or mind because of what you have seen or experienced make you a victim/survivor no matter who you were? Is it the human experience that counts most, the human implications of the tangled mess of violence which we are only just unravelling? Is it the impacts of violence on body and mind that makes a victim/survivor or is it who you were when you experienced those things that counts to decide?
The field is complex, divisive and emotive. The complexity is only further emphasized by the case of Patrick Livingstone. Livingstone was convicted of a murder which took place in 1975. He spent 17 years in prison and in June 2013 he had his conviction quashed. Speaking of the decision-making process, which included consideration of police brutality to achieve a confession from Livingstone and which was not been permitted into evidence, Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan said:

Because of the non-disclosure the appellant lost the opportunity to pursue that line of argument.

One day Livingstone was a perpetrator, the next day he became a victim. Such complexity does not, however, take away from a sense of victimhood arising from the human implications of violence. Nor does it mean that we cannot hold to a view that there has been an unseemly loss of innocence related to the shameful things we have done to each other, related to the shameful things that were done to some of us. But we either begin with the politics of conflict or with the human implications of violence. We cannot do both. Wherever we start on this there is a price to pay. The question is whether or not it is a price worth paying and whether or not we can look each other in the eye and see the human suffering in each other.

Trauma strips us bare

Unfortunate awakening

Our wholeness begins

Conversational Haikus IV John Paul Lederach

 

Notes

1 The Special Advisors Bill passed through the Stormont Assembly on June 4th 2013 following avery public and acrimonious debate. The Bill bars those guilty of serious offenses from serving as Special Advisors to ministers in the NI Assembly. While the sweep of the Bill is such that it includes all kinds of serious offenses the immediate effect, and the focus of the debate, has been of a political nature and saw the removal of the Deputy First MInisters Special Advisor who served 14 years for killing three people in an IRA bombing in England in 1981. The Bill was tabled by Jim Allister, TUV, following the Culture Minister’s appointment of Mary McArdle as Special Advisor in 2010. Ms McArdle was convicted for the murder of Mary Travers in 1984.

2 Following the passing of the SPADs Bill calls have been heard to renegotiate the 2006 definition of a victim. Some discussion has taken place in the pubic domain about alternatives to that definition. The growing discomfort with the acceptance of victims and survivors across society has fed the feeling among some that the Maze/Long Kesh development, as the prison site which included the blocks in which the hunger strikes took place, is inappropriate. Petitions against the redevelopment work have been launched and some political parties on the Unionist side have pledged themselves against the redevelopment on the grounds that it will glorify terrorism.

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