Let victims represent victims: Victims, the stigma, justice and the truth in Northern Ireland
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
8 November 2017
While the Troubles are over, the consequences of what happened during this period are not over for the victims of the violence. Many are still fighting for justice decades after their loved ones were murdered. An event addressing this was organised and hosted by Professor John Barry of Queen’s University Belfast. The audience was largely made up of Queen’s students and academics as well as Troubles victims campaigners.
After a brief introduction from Professor Barry, the floor was given to the four speakers. John Taggart was first to speak. He described the murder of his father Danny Taggart, who was shot dead by British paratroopers in 1971 — one of eleven victims killed in what’s known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. Taggart summarised the events of the infamous mass shooting and gave graphic details of how several of the victims, including his father, were shot execution style after being initially wounded from indiscriminate gunfire. Later in the talk, Taggart also mentioned that his fifteen-year-old brother Bernard Taggart was murdered by the IRA in 1973.
Michael Gallagher followed. Gallagher’s youngest brother, Hugh Gallagher, was killed in 1984 by the IRA for having previously been in the UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment). Then in 1998 his son Aiden was killed in the Omagh bomb. Particularly in regards to this event, Gallagher stated that it started “a journey which has lasted almost 20 years to find out the truth of what happened with that bombing”. He explained that his family had major grievances with both the British and Irish governments, as it has been confirmed that both states had agents within the IRA and that there are still “many, many questions to be answered”. Despite requests to both the British and Irish governments for further public enquiries into the incident, there has been no progress towards finding out what happened. Gallagher remarked that his family and other victims have contacted a number of politicians from various backgrounds, but “all we got was cups of tea and sympathy”. He also stated that they are currently engaged in a legal process that will lead to more information being publicly disclosed about the Omagh bomb. The legal route was seen to be the only way to further the investigation as “both governments have been very shy to give us answers”.
The next speaker was Kathy McIlvenny. In 1987, her sister Lorraine was raped and murdered and then her nephew (Lorraine’s son) was murdered in 2005. Both of these crimes were carried out by Loyalist paramilitaries, with both incidents having “connections to agents working for the state,” McIlvenny said. It has taken 30 years for there to be an investigation into the death of Lorraine McCausland. McIlvenny commented that her family hired their own pathologist to examine the evidence of her sister’s murder, and it was revealed that there had indeed been enough evidence in 1987 to prosecute the men involved. Furthermore, she said that the most difficult aspects of dealing with the loss of their family members was that “you’re not just coping with their death; you have to learn that you have to fight for justice in Northern Ireland”.
Finally, Raymond McCord took to podium. McCord’s son Raymond Junior was murdered by the UVF in 1997, and despite McCord’s campaigning there has never been an investigation into his killing. He also detailed how his son’s gravestone had been smashed three times, and even though this was reported, no arrests were ever made. McCord specifically stated that the main issue revolving around his son’s murder was collusion between the police and loyalist paramilitaries. He went on to describe his disillusionment and frustration with the main political parties of Northern Ireland, saying that “we don’t have politics here in this country — we’ve just sectarian issues”. Moreover, McCord remarked that from his own experience he had concluded the two main political parties (referring to the DUP and Sinn Fein) simply have no concern for victims or their families. His hope was that “students themselves get more involved in victims issues and listen to the victims stories and not listen to the academics or the politicians”. He also criticised the legal system and the PSNI for what he saw as the deliberate impeding of key documents in the case. Additionally, he said that he had been on the receiving end of police harassment and that officers had admitted to him of deliberately not doing their jobs in regards to his son’s case. In his closing remarks, McCord said that the fact he lives under a death threat from paramilitaries shows that he is telling the truth.
The remaining hour was dedicated to a question and answer session. A member of the audience who identified herself as a member of the UUP voiced her disapproval at what she saw as a biased panel. Specifically she asked why there weren’t more representatives from Protestant/Unionist community. Taggart responded first by stating that “don’t think you see Unionists, Catholics or Protestants; what you see are victims”. McIlvenny and McCord followed up by saying that they were both from the Unionist community and that they both had several family members in the security forces (Raymond McCord Junior had been in the RAF). Gallagher added that his family is made up of both Catholics and Protestants, some of which have also served in the British army. “We have serious issues with the Irish government. We have serious issues with the British government. We have no agenda”.
The matter of collusion was discussed. The panel agreed that this is a topic that the Unionist community especially is uncomfortable talking about, but needs to be addressed. McIlvenny and McCord both said that they initially thought the notion of collusion was “Republican propaganda” but then “found out the hard way that it wasn’t”. McCord remarked that Unionist politicians are reluctant to acknowledge that collusion is still occurring. McIlvenny agreed, commenting that it will take another generation before people can honestly deal with this issue.
Another issue that was discussed was who should represent victims. The panel’s consensus was that the representative of victims should themselves be a victim and not someone appointed by the government. Someone who was not a victim themselves of the Troubles was viewed as being unable to fully understand what the victims had to live through. Furthermore, Gallagher pointed out that “what has been built on the backs of our pain is an industry, a very profitable industry” and specifically describing victim representatives: “They don’t feel the pain and they’re creating an industry for themselves … The last time we meet the victims commissioner we told her we had absolutely no faith in her whatsoever.” A complete overhaul was suggested in order to fix this complaint. The panel all agreed that victim representatives should be elected and not appointed.
One student asked what the speakers thought of the current trend of classifying paramilitary members as victims of the Troubles as well. McIlvenny gave some credence to the notion that they were victims in a sense, as many were manipulated and misled into joining these groups. However, she drew a distinction between individuals who joined these groups during the Troubles and those who are currently involved with them today: “The paramilitaries of today are just criminals and I think they need to make that quite clear.” Also, Taggart said that while some paramilitary members were victims of circumstance, that shouldn’t exempt them from being prosecuted for any crimes they may have committed. A related question followed on whether the panel felt politicians were partially responsible for indirectly encouraging violence during the Troubles. “I hold certain politicians responsible for creating victims,” said McCord. He also claimed that politicians are still secretly supporting and even funding paramilitary groups 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement. Gallagher thought that “the maturity of politicians is lacking” and “they’re always looking over their shoulder to see what their followers are saying instead of leading from the front”.
The four speakers all spoke positively about sharing their experiences with researchers and students. Several mentioned that they found it more beneficial than talking with politicians. Taggart noted that he is eager to speak at universities because students and young people “ask the right questions” and they “don’t come with the baggage that we have” (referring to those who lived through the conflict).
The last question related, fittingly, to the notion of closure for victims. The panel again was in agreement that closure is ultimately impossible for those who lost a loved one. McCord said that he feels that the term closure is used simply as “a nice way of saying ‘will they just go away now?’” They also talked about the grieving process and how complicated it can be and how it affects individuals differently. It was pointed out that this can even cause friction in families, as some move on quicker than others. Gallagher said that justice can bring a certain sense of closure for families, so as to “pick up where I left off” before the murder happened.