Belfast Telegraph

If we can't see the difference between victim and perpetrator, we have lost our way as a society

Paramilitaries - loyalist and republican alike - are fond of parroting 'we were all responsible'. Er, no, actually, we weren't.

By Fionola Meredith

We have a warped relationship with the truth in Northern Ireland. Quite how warped, sometimes I think we forget. On Tuesday night, I attended a discussion about dealing with the past at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Journalist Brian Rowan and artist Colin Davidson were in conversation with the Victims' Commissioner, Judith Thompson, and academic Lisa Faulkner. The debate was ably and insightfully chaired by Lyric trustee Stephen Douds.

Yet while nobody could doubt the sincerity of the arguments put forward by both the panel members and the audience, I left the theatre feeling like I'd been walking through deep, foot-dragging bog for miles without hope of ever reaching my destination. That's the nature of any discussion about what to do for victims of the Troubles. The sheer weight of the emotional burden - the pain, the loss, the competing claims of legitimacy and illegitimacy - immediately becomes hugely overwhelming.

Likewise, the proposed mechanisms for dealing with the past become ever more finicky, finely balanced and complex - so complex, in fact, that the Victims' Commissioner struggled to explain the latest plan - in an attempt to find agreement and fulfil everyone's needs, which is impossible. With terrible irony, in this long, tortuous process of reparation for victims, it is often truth itself that comes in for the worst beating.

Brian Rowan said that he had "long come to the conclusion that there is not one truth when it comes to this place". Most liberal, right-thinking people subscribe to this idea. And it is correct in the sense that there will never be a single agreed narrative to which all sides can subscribe. However, it's also a move towards moral relativism, which is why former perpetrators, their apologists and other political ideologues like the notion so very much.

If truth is simply a matter of your own perspective at a particular time, then everyone's truth is valid, and uncomfortable issues like guilt or innocence can be swept away and safely forgotten about.

Under this rubric of convenient revisionism, a gunman can be a victim - of state oppression, of trauma or poverty, of real or perceived injustice - every bit as much as a kidnapped, beaten and murdered mother of 10 children who ends up buried on a lonely beach.

Out of the muddy mess of competing narratives, a pristine level playing field suddenly emerges, upon which we are encouraged to agree that everyone who was involved in the conflict suffered grievous loss and pain, at a human level. Many did, to varying degrees, and that includes some perpetrators and their families. Others retired in considerable comfort to Spain.

If these so-called ex-combatants have served their time, it is reasonable that they receive humane support from the government, if required. But no sane person could draw a moral equivalence between terrorists, or indeed illicit state forces, and the innocent bystanders blown to pieces by their actions.

It's merely another version of that old paramilitary favourite, beloved of both loyalists and republicans alike: "we were all responsible". Well, no, we weren't. Most of us wanted no part in those foul death cults, and merely wanted to live our lives free of their psychotic horror. In no sense did we enable the conflict. Rather, we cowered in the corners, keeping our heads down, praying for it all to end.

That's why it disturbed me to hear Judith Thompson, equivocate on the issue. She was responding to a question from a republican member of the audience who was advocating equality among victims. Thompson said that when you talk about good and bad victims, or deserving and undeserving victims, you end up in "a degrading debate" and "that conversation belittles everyone".

When pushed again on victim equality, the Victims' Commissioner responded that "some people are not at that stage yet".

Look, I know Thompson has a very difficult job to do. But in refusing to allow any differentiation between varying levels of culpability and innocence, and implicitly treating victim equality as some kind of enlightened state to which we all should aspire, the Victims' Commissioner banishes truth from the room.

Here's the real truth, as I see it. If we are to have any respect for ourselves as a society, we must not erase the distinction between victim and perpetrator.

It may not always be clear cut in every case - and it must be open to intensive examination - but to abandon it entirely consigns us all to an amoral netherworld, haunted by the wronged ghosts of the past.

Belfast Telegraph


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