Belfast Telegraph

Liam Kennedy: The reality is that paramilitary organisations, and not the state, did the vast majority of killings and maimings


An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar bomb in March 1972
An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar bomb in March 1972

By Liam Kennedy

These are tumultuous times at Westminster, so Northern Ireland tends to get little attention. Yet, Professor Kieran McEvoy's comments to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on political terror, victims and remembering the past deserve some consideration.

Professor McEvoy tells us that the definition of victims of the Troubles is a "side-issue" as far as academics are concerned. In that case, we must inhabit different planets (while serving at the same university, Queen's University Belfast).

The distinction between perpetrator and victim is one most of us would hold as basic and a rhetoric that seeks to elide this distinction seems curious.

Professor McEvoy welcomes the rewriting of history. So do I. But rather than making the banal point that history writing involves revisions of previous understandings of the past, he might have reflected in more specific terms on the practice of revisionism in relation to the Troubles.

The unfortunate fact is that one political party, with a bit of outside help, has been busily repackaging the Troubles as a struggle for civil rights by other means.

Sinn Fein is the principal proponent of this warped interpretation, as was evident during some of the commemorations of the civil rights movement last year.

Capturing the past is a useful resource for politics in the present, but it does little in terms of seeking truths about that past.

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At one point, Professor McEvoy seemed to acknowledge the inherent injustice of the Stormont House Agreement: victims (perhaps there are perpetrators and victims after all?) should not hold out too much hope for the prosecution of loyalist, or republican, paramilitaries.

But we know that some victims do not wish for prosecutions.

However, most wish for more information on how their loved one was gunned down, blown apart, or mutilated, as well as why.

As the vast majority - some 90% - of those killed in the Troubles and a larger proportion of those injured in bomb explosions were due to paramilitaries, it is hardly reassuring to hear the process of the Stormont House Agreement is likely to tell us little about most of these cases.

There were unlawful killings by the security forces and those responsible should be pursued by the law.

A member of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) at the hearing spoke of collusion between the security forces and loyalist killers.

I believe this to be the case. But there is little to suggest this was on a major scale and unsubstantiated claims, some political in origin, should not be used to obscure the central reality that paramilitary organisations did the vast majority of the killings and the maimings and, indeed, needed little outside encouragement to do so.

Moreover, of the 10% of killings by the security forces, most were in situations of armed conflict and in no sense unlawful.

All killings by paramilitaries were unlawful.

When speaking of victims, surely it is no more than respectful to acknowledge that paramilitaries, day in and day out, without a democratic mandate, were actively engaged in the killing trade, while the forces of the state, under democratic political control - some grave violations notwithstanding - had the opposite objective; that of containing the conflict.

These are fundamental differences and they apply to the security forces north and south of the border.

Professor McEvoy has been associated with the Committee on the Administration of Justice down the years.

The CAJ has resolutely refused to accept that the torture, mutilation and abuse of working-class children and adolescents over three decades was worthy of attention, at least in its public pronouncements.

It turned a Nelsonian blind eye to the most pervasive human rights abuses in this society.

Its apparent indifference contrasts badly with the actions of other human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Human Rights Watch. A little moral outrage wouldn't go astray here.

Could it be naivety, or simply lack of awareness, when Professor McEvoy claimed that the present generation of the Sinn Fein leadership do not have an IRA background?

So, the back of my hand to the begrudgers and perish the thought that the party should apologise for the hurt caused by its sister organisation, the IRA.

I have to say I hadn't realised that Gerry Kelly, Conor Murphy, Caral Ni Chuilin, Martina Anderson, Sean Lynch, Pat Sheehan, Raymond McCartney and such senior supporters as Bobby Storey, "Spike" Murray, Seamus Finucane, Dermot Finucane - the list goes on - had been airbrushed out of history. But that's revisionism for you.

And maybe I'm just imagining I heard Tiochfaidh ar La ringing out from the National Hunger Strike Commemoration in Strabane recently, voiced by one Martina Anderson, a convicted bomber.

Hopefully, I'm not being too hard on our legal friends.

But we do need sensitive, creative thinking on how to deal with the past, how to serve the needs of victims (including the 6,000 and more forgotten victims of "punishment" attacks, who have particularly acute needs).

The Stormont House Agreement does need to be radically revised (that word again) and that means jettisoning selective narratives, definitional fudges and muddled apologetics that, wittingly or otherwise, serve partisan political purposes.

Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen's University Belfast. He is a founder member of Children of the Troubles, which campaigns against paramilitary attacks on children

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