Hierarchies of Victims

Much of the dispute surrounding the release of the Eames-Bradley report has focussed on the concept of a hierarchy of victims. If we think we are about to move away from it we are wasting our time. It is a weapon in our moral armoury that we most certainly do not want to see decommissioned. The advantage it gives us in the ongoing post-war conflict is not one to be easily surrendered. Truth and reconciliation are just something to shout about not to be obtained.

In making demands for truth from a state or any other party to the conflict that plagued the North the terms of reference ought to be clear. They cannot be based on the wishful thinking which denies a hierarchy of victims.

Instead of bluffing that there is no such thing, Kevin Rooney, writing with a disarming honesty, put it so well from a republican perspective:

Simply put, the deaths of young men who we believed were fighting against British military occupation and repression were considered by us to be a far greater loss than the deaths of the British soldiers and RUC men enforcing British rule. To wipe out, retrospectively, that distinction, the fact that convictions, passions and values underpinned people’s attitudes during the conflict … (is) … to erase the goals and objectives that republicans believed were worth fighting and dying for.

While Rooney dislikes the term victim, in the act of valuing one lost life over another he nudges us to the conclusion that as well as having preferential victims everybody has their own ‘undeserving victim’ who, unsurprisingly, merits little or no sympathy. In the binary hierarchical world we share by mutual disagreement, ‘victims on our side are more important than victims on yours.’ Instead of medals on display in the wake of the war, scars are worn here much for the same thing. They are pain badges proclaiming that we were participants in something that we want to remind the world about whether the world wants to be reminded or not. ‘We are the moral victors – our chests sport more scars than yours. You did worse to us than we did to you.’ Human nature undoubtedly but there is also a large measure of politicisation of the issue at play. That is why, depending on what side is taken, we will march for just some of the truth or, alternatively, ensure that those who kill British soldiers spend twenty years in jail while British soldiers who kill unarmed civilians stay long enough for the prison bath and meal.

There are strategically designed hierarchies and those which exist through a form of natural selection; those that are valued not for the victims of yesterday but where the victims are used for the politic of tomorrow; and those that sit atop the structure because they were loved, known, valued and liked by those who place them there.

It is plain that the natural hierarchies will continue to exist until those who hold memories themselves pass on. They require nothing other than memory. The strategic hierarchies of victims - there being more than one of them - will be moulded, shaped and sharpened to a fine point, purpose built for thrusting into the chest of the moral armour of ‘the other’. In the battle for whose hierarchy shall emerge victorious we shall invariably be led back to where we are now, manipulating victimology for narrow political ends which can all too easily sideline concerns that have an orientation more towards justice. It provides an outlet for the accumulated righteous anger that has been stored up over the decades and new victims to unleash it against – ‘you and yours.’ It goes nowhere because in the game of victimology one victim all too easily cancels out another, leaving it difficult to see a way out of our immoral maze unless the victims are respectfully remembered as something in the past and not paraded as weapons in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Victimology reinforces demonology.

One way of disabling the hierarchies of victims so that those behind their strategic construction may not be allowed to impose their skewed view of the conflict on everyone else is do away with the pretence that what they seek is something other than hierarchies of victims. To maintain the fiction is to play to the packed galleries of shroud wavers. Put the hierarchies under the spotlight for what they are; strategic constructs purposefully designed to win today that which was not won yesterday. Then move to drain the culture that sustains them of its inbuilt bias by desisting from the futile attempt to accommodate them. Allow for a plurality of accounts without ever seeking to elevate any of them as ‘the truth’ and whose narration will ultimately be advanced, not by some committee for the recovery of truth, but by a wide array of advocates assisted by officialdom only insofar as it does nothing to block access to information. Anything else will produce only a controlled official truth; which in the end is a dubious truth.

Process may not justify outcome but in this case it may come to replace it as the only balm to open wounds which will resist imposed closure by the Committee for Public Truth.


  1. Anthony,
    we will never hear the real truth as to what happened here. We were all pawns in a dirty, murky conflict orchestrated by dark forces. It appears now that they controlled both republican and loyalist groupings and people died for nothing. If the truth ever came out it would rock the establishment to the core, this is why we'll never hear it. As for reconciliation, that is too much of a liberal thought for me. Unfortunately, there will always be sectarian hatred here, it will never change!
    John Kennedy Cartoonist

  2. John,

    Your scepticism is well founded. However, as an artist you know that the human being needs a platform to express primal emotions. From creating a painting to creating a riot, it will surely express itself.

    I believe the one positive aspect of the "South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission" was that it provided a platform/stage/environment for people to have their pain acknowledged. Albeit that very little truth or reconciliation came out of it.

    I too believe that the search for truth and justice in Northern Ireland is a nonsense. It is yet another junket that the misery merchants can make a living out of.

    However, I do believe that a public platform should be created for everyone and anyone to come and tell their story. There is an amazing project going on in the States at the moment called Story Corps http://www.storycorps.org/. An individual, or group, can go to a mobile recording studio and talk about their lives or a particular issue/event. An unedited oral history of America is developing and the contributors have found the experience to be a cathartic (if not healing) experience. It will also be an invaluable tool for future researchers/historians who are looking for the non-official version of the times.

    I can sense Anthony reaching for the hurley stick on this one but if people cannot find a peaceful, positive way to express their rage we will go back to square one.

    My mother's brother was killed by the Shankill Buthers. She didn't want money, she didn't want revenge and she didn't need anybody to tell her that they were "sorry". But she did want the opportunity to tell people what type of person her brother was and why he didn't deserve the death he got. At least, then, she would have died knowing that somebody told the truth.

  3. Seamus, such an opportunity exists in the form of www.sharedtroubles.net Anyone and everyone is welcome regardless of background or involvement.
    Tell your story and air your experiences free of any silly framing or positioning.
    Check it out.

  4. John, I think you give us much to think about. To what extent the dark forces controlled everything will remain a contentious area. Need to get in touch with you shortly.

    Séamus MacB, I don't know why you think I would reach for the hurl! My problem is not with what you say as I think what I have written on the matter is compatible with what you have said. The platforms you refer to are valuable. My objection is to the view that they would bring either truth or reconciliation. They might bring relief. Fine. A greater objection is to the official organisation of truth.