A Dual Hierarchy

For some reason, despite not sharing Mike Ritchie’s political worldview, I have always found him to have an interesting take on things and have invariably enjoyed talking to him on the few occasions that I have, learning something along the way. When he appeared on UTV's well packaged and presented The Issue a few evenings back to discuss the North’s divisive legacy dispute his contribution was measured not mean.

Yet, because a measured view often fails to get the full measure of a hot potato’s temperature, viewers were enabled to glimpse something of how truth as a conciliatory mechanism fails to measure up in a deeply conflictual society. When truth is a weapon of recrimination, as it is in the North, with its emphasis on partial and partisan recovery it serves to render redundant the politically hip phrase “truth and reconciliation.”

It is easy to understand why Mike Ritchie, as a campaigner with Relatives For Justice, might feel that the British state should be brought to some sort of account. For as Edward W. Lempinen was told thirteen years ago:

There are people who cannot forget, as neither do I, the lesson of the years of the Indochina War. Which was, first, that the state is capable of being a murderer. A mass murderer, and a conspirator and a liar.

It is an observation any society interested in justice should keep to the fore of its mind and it is wholesome that Mike Ritchie will not allow it to slip into abeyance. But there are a number of frailties in his reasoning which will ultimately delay rather than deliver any embracive truth recovery process because written into it is an inherent bias in favour of some victims. It is incontrovertible that when some victims are favoured so too are some perpetrators.

In pressing his case primarily against the state on the grounds that society generally knows already what the non-state combatants did but is much less certain about what the state perpetrated, his assumption is correct only up to a point. Society generally knows what body, state and non-state alike, was responsible for the deaths in its midst, although the lines are blurred when it comes to collusion between the state and ostensibly non-state operatives in the pay of the state a la Brian Nelson or Freddie Scapatticci. 

What society is much less confident about is its knowledge of the chain of command that ultimately produced the deaths. There is a serious gap in knowledge about who did what in terms of decision making: who exactly it was that prescribed the circumstances where people could be targeted for assassination, whether in Gibraltar, Teebane, Loughlinisland or Aldershot. Any truth recovery process that sets out to avoid ascertaining precisely that is compromised from the get go: set up purposefully to procure less rather than more truth. 

A further problem with the Ritchie presentation is the spate of killings carried out by the IRA but corporately denied by the organisation. For example, the Direct Action Against Drugs killings, the Kingsmill Massacre, the slaying of Joanne Mathers, or the numerous post GFA assassinations such as that of Joe O’Connor. Society knows it was the IRA but not because the IRA helped society know. In fact a prominent campaigner on behalf of victims of state violence was much less forthcoming about at least one victim, Joe O’Connor, than she was in her book about the killings carried out by state forces. Her reporting on O’Connor seriously obscured the identity of the organisation behind the killing.

For this very reason, Ritchie’s contribution is likely to be judged as discriminatory against some victims and in favour of some perpetrators. While it has a certain plausibility in that the state, if it is to be a moral actor that wishes to set an example to be diffused throughout society, cannot merrily murder its citizens and argue at the same time that it has set an example not to be followed by citizens, Ritchie’s contribution falls short of being the level playing field in terms of victims. Rather than remove the problem it reaffirms it through advocacy of a dual hierarchy; of victims and perpetrators.

Focusing exclusively or primarily on the behaviour of state forces is entirely legitimate but not if it is framed as a foil to a hierarchy of victims model or as a means of reconciling with the pro-state community. Such an approach is based on the establishment of a deliberate differential between victims: on the premise that there are people whose lives were taken that deserve deeper answers than others whose lives were taken by different actors.

The truth about you is more important than the truth about us: How is that supposed to aid reconciliation rather than recrimination?


  1. Anthony,

    This is an excellent piece. As in your article about Joe Fitzpatrick's death, you continue to examine aspects of the past that the Shinners either ignore or obscure with empty waffle.

    Incidentally, I think the remark about the state's capacity for mendacity and murder was actually made by Christopher Hitchens. The linked article is Lempinen's interview with Hitchens following the latter's resignation from The Nation in protest against the magazine's reaction to 9/11.

  2. Alfie,

    thanks for pointing out the error in attributing the Hitchen quote to Lempinen. I have tweaked it slightly but sufficiently to address your point.

  3. There's only one t in Mathers. Interesting article.

  4. James,

    thank you for drawing that to my attention.

    Corrected now

  5. Very interesting article but is it not a case as in most cases here, to the victor the spoils?