Victims as moral beacons: Testimony from Northern Ireland

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Victims as moral beacons: Testimony from Northern Ireland
by Sam Allen for Shared Future News
29 May 2019

Recovering from trauma can be a long, uncertain and difficult process. The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice held a conference, “From Victims to Survivors: Voices from Below”, which focused on the journeys of those who have been victimised in the Northern Ireland conflict as well as touching upon other conflicts. The discussions focused on the unique journeys people take from being a victim to ultimately growing into a survivor.

Paul Gallagher, who was shot and paralysed in 1993, opened the conference. He stated that the labels “victims” and “survivors” bring a range of issues for those who carry (voluntarily or not) these identities. Additionally, these terms raise difficult questions for wider society, such as how we designate who is or isn’t a victim/survivor and if some victims are more deserving of sympathy.

He said that the purpose of the conference was “to concentrate on how those who have been affected [by the conflict] view themselves, with a particular focus on the arguably paradoxical nature of victimhood, in that those who may have been most adversely affected can embark on pathways of transformation and growth.”

Gallagher also stated that while some survivors would be uncomfortable with this kind of attention, “We think it’s important to promote those who have found meaning in their suffering, that have tried to do something positive with their experiences. Not just for themselves but for others.”

The keynote address was given by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela via pre-recorded video. She discussed her work on Reparative Humanism and reconciliation efforts in South Africa following the end of Apartheid. This work focused mainly on the children of those who were victimised. She gave the example of how several young women came to terms with their grief and trauma after coming face-to-face with the man who killed their fathers when they were children. Not only did it give them a chance to find out what happened to their fathers, it was an opportunity to hear the reasons why the perpetrator did what he did. It was also a significant step towards forgiveness. Gobodo-Madikizela added that “The best way to imagine this experience, or rather, to think about this experience is one of a process of repair.” Specifically, this meant encouraging the second generation, the children of victims and perpetrators, to come together. She said that it is not necessarily about forgiveness in this case as the two parties have not directly wronged each other but instead is about “repairing the brokenness.” Gobodo-Madikizela said that the word “repair” is very useful, as it “suggests something that is ongoing” and provides the image of a continuous process, which people tend to be more receptive to. This is crucial to the concept of Reparative Humanism. If we are to facilitate dialogue between opposing sides in a post-conflict society, the language we use to this must be carefully chosen.

The first academic panel was chaired by Megan Kelly and featured Professor John Brewer, Dr Cheryl Lawther and Dr Sarah Jankowitz.

Professor John Brewer spoke about victims being viewed as moral beacons. Brewer stated that while victims are frequently excluded from discourse, “Victims have an absent presence. They are talked about aplenty but are not allowed to talk themselves.” He explained that the reason victims are left out in peace processes is because “the victim category tends to be distorted by a whole range of additional layers of social meaning that turns victims into problems”. Instead, victims have great potential to be moral beacons and ultimately valuable assets in a peace process as their experience as victims “prioritises the desire to get along”. This can be driven by a sense of moral duty: that future generations don’t have to go through what they did.

Cheryl Lawther explained that political generosity, in terms of victimhood, doesn’t mean placing blame on anyone or whitewashing the past, but instead is “acknowledging the fact that we are all caught up in a shared history” and accepting different perspectives. Acts of political generosity can occur on a small scale, between two individuals who recognise that they share a similar trauma, or this generosity can take place on a larger scale, such as the Queen shaking the hand of Martin McGuinness. However, Lawther said that political generosity may make some feel uncomfortably vulnerable or like they are betraying their deceased loved one. Furthermore, victims have a right to feel hurt or angry, which needs to be respected. Lawther added other aspects of political generosity, including seeing one another as ordinary human beings, recognising the importance of truth, and being willing to face uncomfortable facts.

Dr Sarah Jankowitz was the last to speak and addressed pragmatic approaches to the complexity of victimhood. She said that the notions of an “ideal” victim creates a “script for the moral claims, politicisation and hierarchies which accompany the victim image”. But this is a simplistic and unrealistic description of the victim experience and leads to narrow approaches to how we treat victims. Though a hierarchy that most people in her experience felt was appropriate was the “pragmatic hierarchy”. This is seen as the best, as it recognised that not all survivors were victimised to the same extend and will have different needs in terms of support. Also this pragmatism recognised that “it’s not feasible to address everyone’s needs” given that resources for victim support are finite. Jankowitz said, “The inclusive pragmatic approach to the complexities of victimhood are really crucial in societies seeking to repair divisions rooted in past violence.” In closing, she cited a conversation she had with a member South African Truth Commission, who said that the work they were carrying out was to prevent future victims.

In the Q and A session, an attendee pointed out that no politicians were present, and asked the panel what they would say to them. Brewer and Lawther were both critical of local politicians handling of the peace process. Brewer emphasised that more control needed to be given back to victims and Lawther stated that politicians need to stop stalling and “get on with it”. Brewer also said, “The paradox of Northern Ireland is that its people who have suffered the most who ought to be the least forgiving, who are the most forgiving.” This is something that the media ignore, he added. Jankowitz said that not all reconciliation stories are clean cut, as not all perpetrators will take responsibility for what they’ve done or even accept they’ve done anything wrong. This is undoubtedly a difficult scenario, but this doesn’t mean that a survivor’s journey to recovery should be derailed, she said.

The second panel discussion was chaired by Judith Fullerton and included QUB postgraduates, Sonia Najjar, Carine Płaczek, Elizabeth Charash and Padraig Quinn.

Sonia Najjar commented that while there was little international response to various incidents between Israel and Palestinians, there has been a notable response to the Palestinian cause from the African-American activist group, Black Lives Matter. She said, “This surging phenomenon of the trans-nationalisation of civil society has been described by the African-American civil rights activist and scholar Angela Davis as an ‘intersectionality of struggles’.” This mutual support has received criticisms of anti-Semitism, but several Jewish groups (such as the Jewish Voice for Peace) have endorsed this partnership. Najjar concluded that this highlighted the intersectionality of social movements campaigns against state violence.

Carine Płaczek spoke on how international criminal courts alienate victims of mass atrocities. She recalled from her own first-hand observations as an intern at an international court how victims were handled in an inappropriate manner. She added that this unfortunately has been the norm since these institutions were established. “Victims were silent in the beginning of international criminal law. They were not given a proper voice.” The International Criminal Court (ICC) tried to implement a more “victim orientated framework” and while this is an improvement, Płaczek stated that there are still challenges in giving victims their voice.

Elizabeth Charash put forward that black women in America have been “unable to access these survivor [of gun violence] narratives within the movement” as they historically have not been viewed as victims. Charash linked this to the legacy of racism and slavery in the United States, when black women were frequently denied justice for wrongs done against them. “If you’re never been understood as a victim you can never reclaim [the narrative] as a survivor.” She compared the narratives of relatives of mass shootings and the black female relatives of shooting victims, saying that groups such as Moms Demand Action and Every Town for Gun Safety have a much more definite “ownership over that survivor narrative”.

Padraig Quinn spoke on the issues surrounding memorialisation of the Troubles. He explained that memorialisation is different from other forms of memory preservation (such as statues) in that the focus is on survivors. This gives them great potential for “societal reconstruction”. Survivor memorials can take the form of pamphlets, books, plaques, videos or various other mediums, and can be both private and public. Quinn commented that many survivors feel that they feel forgotten by the rest of society mainly due to wider society’s discomfort with the whole topic. This unfortunately can lead to a not just a “lack of material acknowledgment but a lack of symbolic [acknowledgement]”. There is also the issue of truth, particularly when the circumstances of a killing are kept confidential. “So it’s not just about receiving recognition but getting others to accept that what happened to their loved ones occurred in a particular way.” Memorials can then be used as a means of challenging official narratives and vindicating survivors.

The final panel consisted of activists Alan Brecknell, Pauline Fitzpatrick, Paul McCormac and Lesley Veronica, chaired by Paul Gallagher. Each spoke of their story of victimisation and the journey to becoming a survivor. No biography of any of the speakers was given in the programme as they wanted to speak for themselves about who they are.

Alan Brecknell recalled his father being killed by a loyalist paramilitary in 1975, with state collusion confirmed. He said that while his family went about moving on with their lives, his father’s “death did not become a taboo subject and his memory was kept alive”. Years after the incident, Brecknell wanted to know the details of what happened the night of his father’s murder: “I was now taking ownership of my search for truth.” Following this, Brecknell decided to volunteer and eventually work fulltime with groups dealing with victims’ and survivors’ issues. He realised that regardless of the victim’s background, the trauma and pain were the same. Additionally, he views his work with victim’s support groups as “an opportunity to help others” and more specifically “encouraging victims and survivors to take ownership of what it is they want to achieve”. He also said that it is important to acknowledge the pain of victims today and remember those who were lost in the conflict, in order that the same mistakes are not made again.

Next to speak was Pauline Fitzpatrick. She said her brother Brendan Callaghan, an IRA volunteer, was murdered by the SAS in 1997, adding, “I am not making excuses. I am trying to explain to you how my life has been affected with the loss of my brother.” She then described the terrible toll the death of her brother took on her and her family. As a result of her experience she decided to study the effects of trauma through the WAVE trauma centre, which she found to be very productive. In 2000 she studied psychological trauma through Queen’s University Belfast, which was hugely beneficial for her, as she was able to connect with others who had been through similar experiences. Upon graduating, Fitzpatrick said that she realises the trauma she experienced had been “a complete eyeopener. It opened my world to being appreciative of how trauma affects the individual.” Moreover, she stressed that policy makers in Northern Ireland do not understand this. Currently Fitzpatrick works in a local NGO that helps people with conflict-related trauma: “We’re going to break that cycle of the legacy of transgenerational trauma.”

Paul McCormac spoke of the murder of his father John in 1973. McCormac said he never say saw himself as a victim. Rather he felt his mother, grandmother and father’s siblings were the true victims. He described the devastating grief that afflicted his mother for years after his father’s death. Fortunately, the family situation became more stable when McCormac’s mother remarried, but the grief never completely subsided. McCormac and his brothers found an outlet for their grief through combat sports: “I was good at it. I was good at training. I was good at suffering and good at being coached. It became my escape and what shaped me.” However, tragedy befell again in 1984 when McCormac’s brother was killed in an accident and his uncle, a Sargent in the RUC, was murdered. He also noticed that there was more support and compensation for his uncle’s family even though both brothers had been civil servants. This noticeable difference in treatment has been pointed out by other victims. McCormac stated that growing up in a Nationalist area whilst having close connections with the police gave him a unique perspective on the conflict. This, combined with a steadfast focus on sports and a medical career, meant he didn’t fall into trouble. Then, three or four years ago, McCormac joined the Victims Forum. He said, “I believe every victim is entitled to their own view on every aspect of victimhood” and there is no “one size fits all approach to victimhood”. While he himself is not interested in pursuing convictions, he believes that survivors still have a right to find out what happened to their loved ones. To the common question of “why can’t victims just move on”, McCormac said, “Many are trying but before they can they have to deal with the past.”

Last to speak was Lesley Veronica. Her father, a member of the security forces, was killed in 1973 just before she was five. She said that she wanted to get more focus on the aftermath of being victimised: “We focus on the event, so it was all that day. But it wasn’t all that day. It was everything that came afterwards.” The years following her father’s death were extremely difficult and characterised by traumatic neglect. Specifically, because she was a child her grief was ignored by the adults around her: “I was essentially invisible.” What highlighted this lack of emotional support was the fact it was only years later when she was roughly eight years old that she accepted her father was gone. Life improved greatly when she started secondary school as this was a “uniquely positive environment” for her as it allowed her to intellectually flourish. Veronica briefly joined the Orange Order in her teens but left, as she felt the organisation was promoting sectarian narratives. Going to technical college was a major turning point for her as it was a mixed environment. This was “profoundly life changing”. Additionally, after she moved to her Catholic boyfriend’s house in north Belfast, she began to view the security forces very differently due to negative encounters at checkpoints in the area. Both of these experiences had a deep impact on her views. After her studies she became involved in social activism in Northern Ireland and the US. Veronica eventually joined the Victims Forum and felt she had unique insights to give. She concluded, “To really repay all victims of the past, the only thing we can do as a society is to create a completely different future.”

In the final Q and A session, the panel talked about the issue of memorialisation. Veronica stated she wasn’t comfortable with the state making claims to her father’s memory. Brecknell said it ultimately boiled down to him and his family be able to control the memorialisation of his father. Gallagher pointed out the darker side of memorialisation, referencing the fact that a man who had been involved in his shooting and later killed had two memorials created to commemorate him. Gallagher said, “I think groups need to be very, very careful in how they commemorate”, adding that it should be recognised that this individual was also a victim. Likewise, McCormac talked about the memorial set up to a man who murdered his father. He accepted that this was the families’ wishes, but also stressed that we need to be careful in how we approach public memorialisation and respond to it, citing the recent violence that broke out between police and parade participants in Lurgan: “On the ground you got to be very, very careful. I think there has to be better ways of tackling that.”

In regard to feeling obligated to tell their stories. Veronica said it was important to tell these stories, but survivors must be careful not to traumatise their audiences. Brecknell commented that myths about the conflict must be challenged: “We’ve allegedly an 800-year history of conflict in this country. Do we actually know what happened 800 years ago?” Gallagher stated that the goal of victims telling their stories was “hopefully people can learn from those stories and be inspired by them.” McCormac said, “I think that storytelling is very powerful. I think that it has to get beyond the headlines in the news. Because our mission is to stop this from ever happening again.” Fitzpatrick added “We need to be really, really being proactive for victims and survivors who, let’s be honest, they have rights that have been ignored.”

The panel highlighted the hope that could be found in post-traumatic growth. Gallagher said that while support structures for victims are crucial, adding “For me, it’s always around growth. Becoming empowered by what happened to you.” Brecknell talked about the hugely beneficial experience of having a pint of beer and extended discussion with a former Loyalist paramilitary member. Veronica said, “Strength is found, most often, in small acts of kindness.” McCormac cited a quote from Greek philosophy: “The trials you encounter will introduce you to your strengths” — and connected this with what he called “a sense of survivorship”. Fitzpatrick stated that working with victims and survivors was a privilege and has helped her heal as a result.

Professor Brewer provided the closing remarks for the conference, saying: “We hear quite a lot about politicians putting words into victims’ mouths. But we need to hear more from the victims themselves.” Brewer emphasised that when victims are allowed to tell their own stories instead of the media and politicians, we hear very different narratives “that need to be heard”. He spoke of the importance of “speaking spaces” and “listening spaces” that allow interlocutors to talk, and equally important, listen to the other’s experience. Professor Brewer finished by arguing that for progress to be made, “we much change the narrative in the media and ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard”.

The video-recorded proceedings of the conference are available to view online.

Image source: Paul GALLAGHER @cutdabegs

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