Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

A lot have suffered during Troubles – but some more than others

Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was shot dead by the IRA almost 30 years ago, with TUV leader Jim Allister

If we are not careful, someone may lead us to believe that even Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen were victims. Or Saddam Hussein. Or Colonel Gaddafi. Or a host of other tyrants, dictators or oppressors of ordinary, law-abiding people around the world – never mind those who murdered and maimed in Northern Ireland.

I am starting to think like that after observing the argument in the past week over whether or not there is a 'hierarchy of victims' of the Troubles.

In my book, a hierarchy is obvious. To place Ann Travers, whose sister was shot in the back after attending Mass, in the same category as individuals who set out to murder in the most brutal and often indiscriminate manner, is an insult.

Whether we are talking about nationalism, or unionism, on this island, a gulf has existed between those prepared to kill for political ends and the vast majority, who condemned such barbarity and maintained that violence was no answer to achieving a peaceful settlement.

Such was always the fundamental difference between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Simply because the signing of the Good Friday Agreement diminished the gulf does not mean it has gone away entirely.

The SDLP, which seemed in danger of withering away in the shadow of Sinn Fein, has shown suddenly the kind of political courage last seen in the John Hume era.

The more Sinn Fein gains in respectability at Stormont, the easier it becomes to forget that, for all the grievances and injustices felt within the nationalist and Catholic community, the SDLP was the original force for change. It offered a choice, which a majority of nationalists accepted in election after election. That divide between Sinn Fein and the SDLP was recalled last week in the debate over victimhood.

Ann Travers did not retaliate, as well she might have thought of doing so, over the murder of her sister and wounding of her father.

Nor did those who supported the SDLP choose to take the law into their own hands in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when republicans and loyalists were murdering people on a whim and even elements of the security forces were engaged in appalling activities.

Those who killed in the name of unionism or nationalism would have us believe that, had it not been for them, we would not be where we are now.

The fact that they eventually saw the virtue of peace is to their credit and should be welcomed by everyone, but it is even more to the credit of the vast majority of nationalists who saw the conflict through without killing anyone.

They voted also for the Good Friday Agreement allowing for the release and rehabilitation of prisoners, many of whom had committed murder.

The process of rehabilitation is important, but not to the extent of the insensitivity shown towards Ms Travers over the high-profile appointment – at taxpayers' expense – of a person convicted of her sister's murder.

The danger is that the quest for victimhood sanitises the horror of what those responsible actually did and glosses over their inhuman behaviour.

As a result, the word 'victim' is now being ascribed to people who committed the most heinous crimes, as well as those for whom a bullet in the back, or a bomb in a crowded bar, denied the ultimate right to life itself.

The stand taken by Dr Alasdair McDonnell and the SDLP in supporting Jim Allister's private member's Bill at Stormont is a reminder that the real victims of the Troubles were Catholics and Protestants, unionists and nationalists, who wanted to share power as long ago as 1974, but who were prevented from doing so for another 30 years because of the political intransigence and ruthless terrorism of minorities on each side of the sectarian divide.

Political parties, in election after election, won majority support in each community for peaceful democratic, constitutional politics, supported by the governments of the UK and Ireland, but to no avail, principally because of unabated terror from people who now see themselves as 'victims'.

The airbrushing of the past continues apace, as was apparent in some of the arguments presented at Stormont last week. However, as Ann Travers has ably demonstrated, the slate cannot be wiped clean so easily.

Simply because Northern Ireland has an inclusive administration, which includes Sinn Fein, does not give any carte blanche over victimhood.

There is no commonality of victims. Many people who lived through Northern Ireland's years of violence are 'victims', but each to a different extent.

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