Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Only thing Victims and Survivors Forum will define is a way forward

Images from the Belfast Telegraph Troubles Gallery The body of catholic man lies in an entry off the Shankill Road in West Belfast after being murdered by members of the Shankill butchers. 25/10/82. Pacemaker Press
Con Neeson who was killed by the Shankill butchers in the late 70's. Pacemaker Press
August 1984 John 'Sean' Downes clutches his chest as he is fatally wounded by a plastic bullet. The incident occured after police moved in to try to arrest Noraid fund raiser Martin Galvin who was the subject of a UK exclusion order and who had just been paraded by Sinn Fein on a platform outside Connolly House in Andersonstown. Picture By Alan Lewis

It says something about Northern Ireland as a society that one of the last battles of the Troubles is over who can be considered a victim.

It is a sign that we have not fully moved on and that, with no clear winner in the conflict, there is no accepted way to lay down the law on the issue.

Looking down the list of 23 people appointed to the Victims and Survivors Forum, many people - perhaps all - are purely innocent victims.

For instance, I spotted one man who was attacked in mistake for someone else. Others, though, can be debated.

Eibhlin Glenholmes was singled out for examination earlier this month. She was attacked by loyalists at the age of 16.

Most people would agree that she was a victim at that point. However, she came from a republican family, so there may have been some process of targeting involved.

Later, she was wanted for serious IRA offences and went on the run. She is a former republican prisoner.

As part of the peace process, Tony Blair agreed to allow her to return to Belfast without fear of prosecution - an assurance given on the basis that there was not enough evidence to charge her.

Many people who died, who were injured, or were bereaved have, like Glenholmes, contestable claims to the coveted mantle of victimhood.

Can victim status be lost if you become involved in the conflict, as many people who were injured or bereaved did? Not all victims were able to forgive; some sought revenge.

Not all perpetrators were caught - in fact, the vast majority of Troubles' offences are unsolved and unpunished and we must assume that some unpunished perpetrators will have been victims themselves.

What happens if someone was unarmed and helpless when killed, or injured, but were believed to have been involved in earlier attacks? Are they still considered victims?

Lennie Murphy, the leader of the Shankill Butcher gang, was credibly suspected of a string of gruesome torture-killings. Yet he was threatening no one when he was shot 22 times by terrorists as he drew up outside his girlfriend's home.

The Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer - executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler - wrestled to put such issues in a clear ethical context without success: "Martyr's blood is not always innocent blood," Bonhoeffer wrote.

Bonhoeffer, a double-agent within German intelligence at the time of his arrest, wrote of the need to be prepared to "bear guilt for charity's sake" and not deny or avoid it.

He produced no simple set of rules, or neat array of ethical boxes, to fit the behaviour of flawed and compromised human beings into.

Neither, one suspects, will the members of the Victims and Survivors Forum. Some questions can never be answered in an agreed way. Some questions remain difficult, painful and divisive - whatever we say about them.

It is more useful for these 23 people to help us move on from a conflict which has cost them all dear.

They constitute an impressive cross-section of society and anything they say will have to be taken seriously by politicians and government.

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