Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

People who risk being written out of history

Unionist communities in border areas, who were in the firing line of the IRA, feel the peace process does not take their suffering into account, says Henry Patterson

The Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez portrays his country's history as a weight on the present - a long history of civil wars and violence from which there is no escape. What he is referring to is the capacity of conflicting memories of the past to hold the present hostage and prevent society moving on.

At the centre of this phenomenon were grass-roots organisations claiming to represent the victims of state and paramilitary violence. For such groups there could be no real progress unless the wider society and the state provided recognition and reparation, including justice, for their suffering.

The spread of truth commissions was the most obvious manifestation of these demands although their results in terms of compensation to victims and punishments of perpetrators have been mixed.

Much depends on the balance of political forces that results from the ending of conflicts: where those responsible for the perpetration of genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture and disappearances have been defeated it is more likely that victims will get some form of compensation and justice.

Where, as in Northern Ireland, the conflict ended in a compromise, the process of dealing with victims of violence will inevitably be more difficult. This has been one of the major sources of the unease which has existed within significant sectors of the unionist population with the out-workings of the peace process.

For those unionist leaders, like David Trimble, who supported the Good Friday Agreement, the deal was a good one for unionists involving as it did an acceptance by republicans of the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state.

However, the constitutional guarantees of the Belfast Agreement, were not sufficient for a sizeable sector of unionism which focused instead on the inclusion of Sinn Fein in government at a time when the IRA had yet to decommission any weapons.

The 'appeasement' of 'Sinn Fein-IRA' was the central criticism made by Ian Paisley and the DUP of Trimble and they used it with great effect to eventually displace the UUP as the dominant unionist party. Part of the campaign against the UUP focused on the 'immorality' of the 1998 deal involving as it did the early release of paramilitary prisoners and the reform and renaming of the police force. 'Terrorists' in government would result in the gradual destruction of the British culture of the province and, as part of the process, perpetrators would be put on the same moral level as their victims. The focus of resources on the investigation of some high-profile victims of state violence and alleged collusion with loyalist paramilitaries by members of the security forces encouraged this negative depiction of the peace process.

These issues emerge with particular force for unionists in border areas. A minority in predominantly Catholic areas, they had a history of involvement in the security forces. As part-time members of the UDR and RUC Reserve they had been a prime target for the IRA.

Most attacks were carried out when they were off-duty and often in the company of family.

This, as Eames-Bradley points out, was the victimisation of a community and added to by attacks on Protestant farms, businesses and Orange halls.

After the IRA ceasefires and the Agreement, border Protestants set up victims' groups to campaign for recognition of what they had suffered during the Troubles. However, 13 years on from the Agreement, and despite the very positive work that has been done by these groups, the unfortunate reality remains that these border Protestants remain largely forgotten victims. In part this reflects their situation on the frontier of Northern Ireland: the neglect and ignoring of border areas has been a long-standing complaint of both unionist and nationalist politicians from these areas. It also reflects the isolated nature of these communities and a conservative individualism which makes them keep thoughts and feelings to themselves.

Many have a disparaging attitude to unionist politicians, feeling that too many of them simply used the victims' sufferings as a political resource. Some in the victims' groups who supported the DUP in their critique of the UUP's 'appeasement' are now disillusioned with the party for its co-government with Sinn Fein.

There are also internal differences over whether to accept the statutory definition of a victim which some regard as giving moral equivalence to perpetrators and victims. For many, the stress by some funding bodies on reconciliation and work with 'former combatants', ie paramilitaries, is repugnant.

For all the important work that victims' groups are doing for these border Protestants, many remain isolated and ignored. For some the rise of dissidents in these areas has led to the rebirth of a sense of threat, insecurity and fear. Whatever the broader society may think, they do not feel much has changed since 1998 and find Stormont talk of a 'shared future' and 'moving forward' unreal. This is not a group which will riot and loyalist paramilitarism has been historically weak in border areas.

The rejection of the Eames-Bradley report by many Protestants along the border stemmed from feeling that any Legacy Commission would end up treating dead paramilitaries as moral equivalents of those they had victimised. Their dilemma is that without some form of process for dealing with the past, their experiences will be forgotten about and written out of history.

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