IF I ASKED you who the victims of the Troubles are, what would your answer be? Is a victim somebody who was in a paramilitary organisation? Is it a person in the security forces? Or is it just a member of the general public who was killed going about their daily lives? Debates like this have being brought to the forefront of politics in Northern Ireland due to the introduction of a bill by TUV MLA, Jim Allister that would ban people being convicted of serious offences being appointed as a special advisor to a minister.
The bill has provoked a predictable response, with Sinn Fein preaching that it is in opposition to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and on the other side Unionists arguing that it is a necessary piece of legislation. While the parties battle it out in the assembly, does the fact that this bill is coming about now not highlight that the real problem in Northern Ireland is we are next to nowhere in dealing with victims?
3,529 people died over three decades of violence
Anytime I am conducting a seminar or writing a piece like this I always state the figure that 3,529 people died over three decades of violence. It has become so commonplace now that we just belt out this number as if it were some foreign conflict that occurred over a century ago. When you properly sit down and think that this not only happened on your own doorstep but in your lifetime it really makes you think about the desensitisation that we have all gone through when it comes to political violence. It’s as if we have taken it for granted that thousands had to die to get to where we are today.
The simple fact is that thousands didn’t have to die to get essentially what was offered in the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973. There were many things wrong with Northern Ireland in the late sixties but could anybody honestly make a serious argument that reform could not have been achieved without violence? Are we not forgetting men like John Hume, Paddy Devlin and the thousands like them who suffered discrimination and opted to change Northern Ireland through the political process? And on the Loyalist side, did people like Harry West and Jim Moylenaux not do more to defend Unionism by illustrating that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only be secured through the ballot box?
Any loss of life motivated by politics is wrong
It is this manipulation of history that had led us to what is a shameful legacy and that is the treatment of victims. Of those 3,529 deaths, the majority of them were people whose crime was ultimately being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In our drive to declare ‘mission accomplished’ on the Northern Ireland problem we have effectively consigned to the history books people like Peter Ward who was killed by the UVF and Marie Wilson who died in the Enniskillen bomb planted by the Provisional IRA. If we are to buy the narrative that the Troubles was necessary, then deaths like these are simply going to be relegated to collateral damage.
The truth is that any loss of life motivated by politics is wrong. It does not matter if the perpetrators do it in the name of the Crown or the Republic. And for those seeking to excuse the deaths of innocent people they could do well to remember that you do not defend your political cause by defending the indefensible.
The search for justice
Some have argued that the introduction of the Special Advisors bill was a travesty of the Good Friday Agreement. However I would argue that the real travesty is that more than a decade on from the ending of the Troubles we still have families on both sides of the community looking for truth and justice.
Victims of the Troubles who stick their heads above the parapet and argue for the truth about what happened to their loved ones should be talked up – not shouted down. We shouldn’t shrug our shoulders nor close our eyes but instead pause for a moment and ask the most humane question: how would I feel if this happened to me?
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.