By Mark Thompson (Relatives for Justice)
There has been much exploitation and manipulation of people bereaved and injured in our conflict - playing on emotions and grief for political capital. There is a fine line between genuine political support and manipulation, which is often crossed.
The DUP in the main drove an agenda that sought to thwart and prevent change using raw emotions of victims and survivors to undermine Trimble, himself a lame-duck leader with his half-in, half-out approach. Jim Allister has picked up that mantle now he’s left the DUP - and with a lame-duck leader in Peter Robinson Allister is able to play the old card that the DUP once used with effect.
This week the SDLP leader said that his party colleagues on Newry & Mourne District Council were wrong to name a play park after hunger striker Raymond McCreesh. He said that it had hurt people from the unionist tradition. But did he have any consideration for the McCreesh family or the families of all the hunger strikers? Apparently not. The SDLP leader is also playing politics with victims.
We live in a society where practically in every city, town and village there exist war memorials to the British Army, where streets are named after British war battles and their dead, and where hospitals, centers of education, and even shopping centers are named after British royalty. And of course play parks too. There are plenty of statues also.
We also live in society where sectarian marches parade to these war memorials. Ask most loyalists and unionists whom they commemorate and you’ll mostly hear that this includes the UDR, RUC, prison officers all defined as ‘innocent victims’ - and of course loyalist paramilitaries. It has little to do with the First World War and whilst we are continually told to embrace the fact that many Irishmen gave their lives in that war there is never any mention of the historical context of the time in relation to poverty, starvation, and especially the promise of Irish independence.
It’s impossible to escape everyday reminders of the trappings of an imperial culture built on privilege, patronage, pomp and ceremony and where the objective always appears to be one of triumphalism, domination and subjugation. Not to mention violence. A land where nationalists should know their place and abide by the rules of the dominant ‘culture’.
The late human rights lawyer PJ McGrory once wrote that as nationalists living in the north it feels that we are strangers in our own land.
What of the sensitivity of those people abused, maimed and bereaved by the British State and all of its paraphernalia of war in their own country?
Have any politicians stopped to consider this and the hurt that exists daily for these people?
Have any politicians put forward motions to change place names, civic buildings, parks etc. making these more accessible and welcoming, and importantly promote joint ownership?
Several years back Belfast City Council voted to have a home coming parade for the RIR. It divided the city. Victims of the UDR/RIR and other regiments of the British Army held a dignified vigil holding pictures of their loved ones that had been killed. In addition to insults and threats hurled at them they also had bricks, bottles, steel nuts and bolts, and fireworks thrown at them. Some were injured. This was all captured on TV. The PSNI stood by.
Compare that to Castlederg.
If the victims of British State violence were to stand silently on Remembrance Sunday near the war memorial in Castlederg and elsewhere who would be insulted?
Why is it that the issues affecting the victims of British State violence always seems to take second place?
And what if these same relatives were to be interviewed by the media and said that those taking part in Remembrance Sunday were members of State forces, perpetrators, and not real victims?
And what if we were to apply their logic of victimhood citing that because there was collusion and wrongdoing on the part of these forces then they cannot be considered victims at all?
And what if the media said but your relative was in the RUC or the UDR/RIR?
And what if nationalists and republicans said we needed to create neutral civic spaces because we find British war memorials places of glorification offensive and that there would be absolutely no political cooperation or way forward until this was addressed?
Of course this approach would be wrong and yet this is precisely the experience for the victims of State violence and collusion.
And whilst Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd said publicly that his party should reflect on Castlederg they also need to reflect on the impact this statement has had on families of republican dead too.
The reality is that without direction and leadership unionism is instead competing for votes from within its own constituency and playing lowest common dominator politics and thus we all suffer. We are again witnessing the politics of anti-agreement nihilism that stokes and pokes at the hurt and anguish of all those bereaved and injured.
The SPAD Bill, Long Kesh, and contested victimhood is all the resulting fallout from the political Fáilure to address the past - make no doubt about that. The majority of victims of the conflict want the truth and civil society supports a process too.
That political Fáilure has also enabled the type of posturing and petty politicking that has impacted negatively on all victims. Now Jim Allister has sought to pull the Victims Commissioner into a political argument because she is adhering to the legal definition of a victim that was rightly agreed in the first executive.
If Jim Allister is real about the issue of victims then he’ll have no problem in supporting a process that addresses the past. I don’t hear anyone from any of the incidents that he regularly mentions in which people lost their lives saying we don’t want the truth. It’s the very opposite.
A process to address the past must be put in place once and for all.
The Tanaiste last week told Dr. Haass in New York that there should be no hierarchy of victims and he was right.
No one has a monopoly on suffering and when the hurt and grief of one set of victims is promoted to the detriment of another then we diminish all suffering. It is continuing conflict by different means. It is wrong. It is not the stuff of real leadership. It needs challenged.
All victims have a right to truth, accountability, and proper effective support services. OFMDFM has undoubtedly Fáiled them in that regard. All victims should be treated with respect and above all equality.
Marches and flags are merely a symptom of Fáiled politics to address the past, of which all parties and both governments, particularly the British, have a reluctance to take forward.
It might well be that the flags of convenience from which much of the sniping and blaming about the past is conducted, and in which Dr. Haass has been appointed, could actually end up creating the momentum for a process.
Now that would be something worthwhile.