Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Point of Victims Commissioner has been lost

Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone has faced calls to consider her position
Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone has faced calls to consider her position

Only in the Kafkaesque world of Northern Ireland would a 'victims commissioner' see no moral difference between the person who has had a bullet put in their head and the one who put it there.

But this is the consequence of the 'neutrality' of Kathryn Stone – the Victims Commissioner – who cannot say whether the IRA and the UVF were 'terrorists'. "Some victims believe they were, others believe they weren't".

It's all very well trying not to offend anyone's sensibilities. Whether or not our 'Troubles' were actually a 'war'; whether or not the Provos were 'terrorists'; whether or not loyalists were the same as republicans; whether or not security force violence was the same as paramilitary violence – none of these issues can be allowed to mean that victims of the Shankill Butchers and the Shankill Butchers themselves were morally equivalent.

Saying that they were all caught up in the context of conflict cannot be allowed to mean that those who gunned down Protestant farmers along the border are just as much 'victims' of the times as those who lay in their own blood while their family watched horrified. That implies an absurd account of personal choice. Equally, an armed paramilitary shot in an internal feud becomes as much a victim as someone blown apart out shopping.

This is all the wrong argument.

Somewhere along the line the point of a Victims Commissioner has been lost. The point was to give long-overdue acknowledgement to those who lost their lives or otherwise suffered in the Troubles and whose lives had been erased, ignored, forgotten, left unresolved. That they would finally get their voices heard.

The point was not that the commissioner would provide yet another platform for those who gained politically from violence yet again to condone their own past actions. Yet another arena for people who have secured mandates, enjoyed cabinet posts, to justify past lives.

In short, the Victims Commission was never meant to be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the back door – through which everyone gets civic forgiveness but no one has actually to admit to their past deeds, just be praised for them in the abstract.

There have been welcome general statements about regret for deaths. These are not insignificant and I don't mean to imply they are.

But we've never reached the point where active participants in the Troubles, on any side, have stepped forward to claim their own personal atrocity, even when there's no chance of legal redress against them, thanks to the peace process. They choose to remain in the shadows, which is where 'common sense' would keep any of us. But it's uncommon sense that's required here and we may never get to that point.

So, when challenged in public life, it's the old rule: deny, deny, deny. Often, this occurs to an absurd degree, believed by no-one. Until, however, there is disclosure of this kind, there can be no 'truth and reconciliation'.

But the point of a Victims Commissioner is much more modest. It's simply to make sure the innocent are remembered, that the grief of relatives is recognised as we move ahead. The role is for 'victims' principally because they don't have a political wing to represent them, or the infrastructure of 'community activists' to support their loved ones. Every other element of the Troubles has its support group or party.

It's fair enough for a commissioner not to adhere to the idea of a 'hierarchy of victims' – though I've yet to see a plausible or coherent explanation of that approach.

The problem is this: it's not a Victims Commissioner's job to protect killers from the reality of their actions. The idea that a killer and the person he or she kills are somehow on the same plane of victimhood is to say, in short, that the killer is his or her own victim. It's insane; but it is the direct consequence of an approach designed in the first place to shield perpetrators from the often very unheroic character of their deeds in earlier life rather than acknowledge the victims of those deeds.

The current commissioner is bogged down already in the wrong issue. There are enough relatives here simply looking to have the names of their murdered loved ones spoken aloud for the first time in decades by someone in authority other than clergy or a solicitor to be going on with.

Start with those, Ms Stone. You'll find you will travel a long way down that road before you encounter any of the rococo complex and peculiar individuals who have dominated so much of your time up to now.

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