The Therapeutic Politics Of The Peace Process

Liam Ó Ruairc argues that the current victim, therapy and inquiry cultures in Northern Ireland indicate a weakened sense of agency, diminishing expectations and a new way for the British state to re-assert its authority in the six counties.

The peace process has put significant emphasis on the ''victims' of the conflict. The 1998 Belfast Agreement stated:

The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. 

From Kenneth Bloomfield's report published shortly after on 29 April 1998 to the Eames-Bradley proposals made public on 28 January 2009 and the recent 'Fresh Start' agreement, 'victims' have been at the centre of Northern Ireland's political discourse.

A search made in 2013 in the archives section of the online version of the Belfast Telegraph brought up more than 9000 articles on the 'victims' of the conflict from the 1990s onwards. According to the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors, from 1998 to 2010 over £80 million has been invested in developing the Northern Ireland victims sector. By 2014 there were almost 50 dedicated victim and survivor groups in operation in Northern Ireland, rising to 90 when 'parallel providers' (who do not work only with conflict related victims) are included. Indeed obviously sympathetic commentators, such as Sir Kenneth Bloomfield (himself the victim of an IRA bomb), have bemoaned the development of a “victims industry” in Northern Ireland. (Kieran McEvoy & Peter Shirlow (2013) The Northern Ireland Peace Process and ‘Terroristic’ Narratives, Terrorism and Political Violence, 25:2, 164)

This 'victims industry' is closely connected to a 'victim culture'. People are fighting to be recognised as being 'more' of a victim or a more 'deserving' victim than others. There is no agreed definition of what a 'victim' of the conflict is or who can fit into that category. But as the psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose noted: "Victimhood is an event. It is something that happens to you. The moment it becomes an identity, psychological or political, then I think you're finished." (Conversations with Jacqueline Rose, London : Seagull Books, 2010, 93) From active subject, people define themselves as victim instead. The central importance given to this 'victim' discourse is symptomatic not only of the crisis of republicanism and unionism, but of a general weakened sense of agency. 

The problem of 'victims' raises that of 'therapy culture'. Most studies in the existing literature stress that the population of the six counties has been heavily traumatised by the conflict there. A study providing epidemiological estimates of trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and associated mental disorders in Northern Ireland with a focus on the impact of the conflict using data from the NI Study of Health and Stress (NISHS) as well as a representative epidemiological survey of adults in the region estimated that 60.6% of people there had a lifetime traumatic event, and 39.0% experienced a presumed conflict-related event. (B.P.Bunting, F.R. Ferry, S.D. Murphy, S.M.O'Neill, and D. Bolton (2013), Trauma Associated With Civil Conflict and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence From the Northern Ireland Study of Health and Stress, Journal of Trauma and Stress, 26:1, 134–141) Another report on the trans-generational impact of the conflict also found that more than 213,000 people in Northern Ireland are experiencing significant mental health problems as a result of the conflict. (C. Downes, E. Harrison, D. Curran, M. Kavanagh (2013), The trauma still goes on... : the multigenerational legacy of Northern Ireland's conflict, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 18:4, 583-603) The existence of such 'trauma' brings the issue of 'healing' and how people affected can move forward. 

The problem with current approaches is that they understand 'trauma' as essentially a medical and mental health issue and medicalise 'healing' They reduce what is a political problem to a therapeutic one. This introspective, individualised and depoliticised approach promotes a view of the human subject as inherently vulnerable and in need of professional support (a perspective similar to 'victim culture'), what Frank Furedi has called 'therapy culture'. Furedi interestingly points to evidence for this new therapeutic sensibility in the increase in citations of the words ‘stress’, ‘syndrome’, ‘counselling’ and ‘trauma’ (the latter increased tenfold from less than 500 mentions to over 5,000) in British newspapers between 1994 and 2000. The start date is significant as 1994 is the year of the ceasefires that marked the public phase of the peace process. (Frank Furedi (2003), Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, London: Routledge, 4-7)

However one should bear in mind that 'healing' is only one means of dealing with the legacy of violent conflict, and one that is not necessarily favoured by those who have been affected by the Troubles. The Report of the Victims Commissioner, for example, noted that groups representing those who had been killed directly by state forces, or killed in instances allegedly involving state collusion between the state and Loyalist death squads, expressed a firm view that revelation of the full truth of these controversial events was far more important for the victims they represented than any other consideration.

The relatives who are searching for 'truth’ frame the issue of dealing with the past in terms of ‘justice’ rather than in terms of ‘healing’. Healing, if it is considered at all, is viewed as a secondary issue and one that will be an outcome of achieving justice. When we talk about 'healing' war-torn societies we should recognise that healing is not a discrete process that only takes place in a therapeutic setting; it is tied up with wider questions of social justice and normative concerns about what type of society we all want to inhabit. Ultimately, these wider issues can only be addressed in the political domain. (Chris Gilligan (2006) "Traumatised by peace? A critique of five assumptions in the theory and practice of conflict-related trauma policy in Northern Ireland", Policy & Politics, 34:2, 335 and 339-340)

But a major obstacle to those wider issues being properly addressed in the political domain is that some of the approaches with dealing with the past tend to reduce history to psychodrama. The best example of this was the Facing The Truth programmes broadcast by BBC in March 2006 in which Desmond Tutu brought people who had lost relatives in the conflict with the person responsible for their loss in the hope of encouraging them to make gestures of forgiveness and reconciliation in front of the cameras. This became in effect a denial of a political approach to dealing with a past that looked beyond interpersonal encounters to the structural causes of conflict and violence. (Bill Rolston (2007) "Facing Reality: The media, the past and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland", Crime Media Culture, 3:3, 359)

In his essay 'On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness', Jacques Derrida shows the difficulties associated with the concepts of 'forgiveness' and 'reconciliation' and the tensions that can arise between the two. Using the South African Truth Commission of Desmond Tutu as an example, Derrida argues that the concept of 'forgiveness' is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. There are tensions between individual 'forgiveness' and national 'reconciliation', and the state could avoid being held accountable if everything was simply a matter of individual 'forgiveness'. 'Forgiveness' and 'reconciliation' are therefore not synonymous and can fall short of 'justice'. (Jacques Derrida (1997), Cosmopolites de Tous les Pays, Encore un Effort!, Paris : Galilée, 38ff)

This last point is particularly relevant if one looks at official 'apologies' given by the British state for some of its actions during the conflict in the north. A recent study critically examining the nature, role and function of official apologies with respect to conflict-related deaths in Northern Ireland concludes by suggesting that a pattern of official apologies without accountability and acceptance of responsibility is emerging in Northern Ireland; that official apologies can function as a way to shield state institutions, deflect further scrutiny, deny culpability, avoid effective redress and placate and silence victims.

In this context historical injustice may be intensified rather than rectified, causing more harm than good, at best glossing over past wrongs and at worst facilitating impunity and re-traumatising victims. (Patricia Lundy & Bill Rolston (2016), "Redress for past harms? Official apologies in Northern Ireland," International Journal of Human Rights, 20:1, 104-122) The paradox is that the very need to apologise for some of its actions during the conflict represents an attempt to justify them which can only increase the guilt of the British state. What Paul de Man wrote in a famous passage of Allegories of Reading is directly relevant to the British state's apologies:

Excuses not only accuse but they carry out the verdict implicit in their accusation
... Excuses generate the very guilt they exonerate, though always in excess or by default...No excuse can ever hope to catch up with such a proliferation of guilt." (Paul de Man (1979), Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust, New Haven, Yale University Press, 293 and 299)

The issue of official 'apologies' rose in the context of the many official enquiries that have taken place since 1998: more than £500 million has been spent by the British government (and to a lesser extent by Leinster House) for inquiries into some controversial incidents of the conflict. (Mike Tomlinson (2012), "From counter-terrorism to criminal justice: transformation or business as usual?" Howard Journal, 51:5, 449)

The most important of those inquiries has been the Saville Inquiry. On 29 January 1998 British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised an official inquiry into Bloody Sunday, and on 15 June 2010 the Saville Inquiry made its conclusions public. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday lasted 12 years and cost £195 million, making it the longest and most expensive public inquiry in UK history. In comparison the official inquiry into the 9/11 attack in the USA in which 2,995 people lost their lives lasted for 20 months, interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses in 10 countries, reviewed more than 2.5million pages of documentation and cost $15 million. The Saville Inquiry shows how 'inquiry culture' connects with both therapy and victim culture and provide new means for the British state to reassert its authority in the six counties. As Brendan O'Neill put it:
The impact of the rewriting of the Bloody Sunday story by the modern British state has been twofold: first, it has helped to dehistoricise that day; and second, it has helped turn it into a vehicle for therapeutic intervention into the lives of people in Northern Ireland, who apparently require a new army of British-funded experts to help them come to terms with their tragic pasts . Indeed, so thorough has been the lawyerly makeover of Bloody Sunday that the British state, the author of the atrocity, can now assume its moral authority in Ireland through taking an apologetic approach to such tragic historic events. In scolding some of its soldiers and offering apologies to their victims, the British state has extricated itself from the history and politics of Bloody Sunday, taking the elevated position of a dispassionate fixer of past wrongs. Today, one of the key ways Britain justifies its continuing presence in Ireland is as a moral manager of the past, a facilitator of reconciliation between hurting communities - and its moral hijacking of Bloody Sunday has been a key plank in this rehabilitation of its rule in a neighbouring nation ... Bloody Sunday was not a freak incident in which paras ‘lost control’ - it was part of a war by the British state to maintain control over its colony of Northern Ireland. And now, 40 years on, that same tragic event is used by the same British state to reassert, in therapeutic terms, its governance of Northern Ireland." ( Brendan O’Neill, "The moral hijacking of Bloody Sunday", Spiked online, 30 January 2012)

The Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014 promised another £150 million to be spent over the next five years to deal with the 'past' about which there is no consensus. From the previous inquiries it is possible to have an idea about how the debate about the past is going to be framed:

The end result is a shallow debate about the past, where questions about who was fundamentally responsible for the conflict are evaded, and an uncritical approach in the present, where the authority of the British state in Northern Ireland is judged by the gestures it makes to the ‘hurting’ communities rather than by its policies or vision or, indeed, its legitimacy." (Brendan O’Neill, "Pat Finucane wasn’t the only victim of collusion", Spiked online, 13 December 2012)

The fact that it is the British state which determines the parameters on how to deal with the past has the following implication:

"They suggest that we start the exploration of the past on the understanding that the laws of the State decide who was in the right and who in the wrong through a conflict over the very legitimacy of that State." (Malachi O'Doherty, "No shortcuts to an agreed past," Belfast Telegraph, 4 July 2014)

The result of this is that in Northern Ireland not every murder is treated the same:
Everyone in the UK has heard of Jean McConville. She was a mother of ten, abducted and murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1972 (accused of being an informer). It is a case used to highlight the inhumanity of the IRA. But who is Joan Connolly? She was a mother of eight shot by the Parachute Regiment in the unprovoked killing of 11 civilians in Ballymurphy in West Belfast in 1971. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland has refused an enquiry into these murders. Justice for these two mothers is not equal.” (John Brewer (2015), In Northern Ireland Not Every Murder is Treated the Same.

How to deal with the 'past' is made on terms ultimately dictated by the British state and is not built on justice or truth. 

This article has argued that the current victim, therapy and inquiry cultures enables the British state to reassert, in therapeutic terms, its governance of Northern Ireland. But it also stresses the alarming extent to which since 1998 in Northern Ireland therapeutic politics have usurped politics proper. As Chris Gilligan concluded in his study of conflict-related trauma policy in Northern Ireland:
In order to rebuild a society torn by conflict a more ambitious and active vision is needed, one which looks to the future and what people can do to bring about this future.


It is worth comparing the BBC programme mentioned above and contemporary victims and therapy culture to Marcel Ophuls' 1972 film A Sense of Loss  which was made in a very different context. Filmed in Belfast in the winter of 1971-1972 this documentary film is thematically organised around the idea of human loss. Ophuls interviews Mr. and Mrs Nichol, young Protestant parents who still listen for the cries of their baby burned to death in a bomb attack on Balmoral Furnishing Company on 11 December 1971. Mrs Lavery describes her husband who has killed by a bomb which exploded as he attempted to carry it out of his bar on the Lisburn Road on 21 December 1971. A grandmother Ophuls interviews sees the spirit of her son, IRA volunteer Gerard McDade killed in Ardoyne also on 21 December 1971, in her newborn grandson. The film ends with the story of a teenage girl who was accidentally killed by a British Army armoured car on her way home from a dance. Her mother states that the Army never contacted her about her daughter's death. Instead of placing the ideas presented in the film within a historical context, Ophuls stated that he structured the film around the experience of death, with each episode highlighting the death of a particular person. The film was more an 'inner view' rather than an overview of the situation in Northern Ireland. While Ophuls' technique worked in his highly acclaimed, 1969 documentary, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), because the issues of the Nazi Occupation were already clear to the audience of the 1970s, the New York Times review criticized that Ophuls was "almost frivolous" to make A Sense of Loss without explaining the historical, economic and political antecedents of Ireland's problems. The film is interesting in the context of this article as it shows how people dealt with loss and trauma in 1971 was framed differently than today.


  1. "The moment [victimhood] becomes an identity... you're finished".

    Yes. Good point. We live in an age that encourages identification with victims.

    We also need to remember that identity is not fixed, so the role of part-time victims is not uncommon.

    People may see themselves as victims despite (most of the time) being anything but.

    This brings to mind the many Scots of Catholic extraction who assert their own "victimhood", despite clear evidence to the contrary. This sense of victimhood is then used to justify segregated Catholic schools, paid for by taxpayers of whatever persuasion.

    The argument is basically: "Yes, I'm quite comfortable. I may even work for the establishment. However, a century ago, my ancestors were discriminated against. Therefore, society should separate children on religious grounds."

    Victimhood can be profitable. It certainly allows the state to administer economic oppression by shifting the focus to identity politcs.

  2. There is so much here that a few observations is as much as time permits me to make. The piece actually merits a full thought out response.

    I wonder to what extent it actually does diminish agency. Ed Moloney recently wrote something about there being a wholescale unwillingness on the part of the political class to stand up to the moral power of the victims lobby in the North. That suggests an agency which is asserted or used for either benign or malign purposes. I don't think Rose is right that a victim is an event. That suggests a very static view of victims and in some ways can be utilised to diminish victimhood to a "non-event". Victimhood can be a life changing event and the logic of that is that it extends beyond the event.

    Is victimhood an identity or a strategy? If the latter, it is very much imbued with agency.

  3. Though I won't claim to have fully digested everything in Liam's article I do agree with much of the thrust of his piece.

    As with any 'drama triangle' we have persecutors, victims and rescuers ... and the continuing interchangeability of positions. 'Rescuers' often have a need, albeit an unconscious one, to foster dependency in 'victims'. They sometimes pull 'victims' back into their trauma unnecessarily or hold them too long in it. Unknowingly the 'rescuers' re-traumatise the 'victims' and effectively become 'persecutors'.
    'Victims' when they believe themselves alienated and unsupported will tend to want to punish. Through their direct or manipulative passive aggression they too can become 'persecutors'.

    'Rescuers' in fostering dependency, rather than cultivating agency, succeed in ensuring that individuals continue to place their locus of control outside their own power. In doing so they prevent people from developing that future orientated perspective that Gilligan advocates for. Those who externalise their locus of control will continue to seek refuge in their respective 'tribe' thus further stymieing much, or if any, real progressive or meaningful political change and development.

    Individuals are best supported through very, very brief therapy coupled with education as to the effects of trauma on one's capacity for rational, logical and critical thinking.

    Only then, will those so inclined, be able to explore the fundamental existential concerns of meaning, mortality, isolation and freedom. Perhaps from such a position some will be able to move through and beyond their grief, pain and trauma.

  4. "Is victimhood an identity or a strategy?"

    Could it sometimes be a strategically-adopted identity?

  5. RTW,

    as camouflage rather than being an essence? If so do they end up becoming what they initially for strategic reasons only pretended to be and lose agency in the process?

  6. I think various groups or individuals capitalized on the availability of money and designed various projects and novelty ideas to harness that money. The above article does more to look at the findings of well funded researchers who had to put a good spin on who they were studying, representing or benefiting and why their proposals should be funded. For instance the NIHRC invested heavily over a full ten year period in its proposed bill of rights -it literally spent millions of pounds on the project which was a worthless endeavor. That justified their ignoring human rights abuses happening before their very eyes and I'd say that was the governments intention to keep them occupied with distractions. Other groups were no better. It is not that any real or meaningful attempt has been made to deal with victims but gimmicks used to avoid dealing with them. Many of the experts and professional who made a lucrative living from milking or creating the victim culture and industry were not themselves victims.

    The only victims the article seems to refer to, it suggests, are split between healing and justice. The slant of the article is that the victims should take a path to healing and forgo justice. Justice means accountability and in whose interest is that to be avoided -not the victims. Justice is its own good healer. And what sort of healing is there if it requires forfeiture of justice?

    There is also a difference between living in the past and re-suffering the past. One is intended as a demeaning dismissal. This article is not really that good because it does more to continue to cloud and confuse the issue in its use of research and jargon -and leans toward blaming victims because they have not gotten justice. The sense that I get from the article is not that victims should be healed but that they should hurry up and go away. Maybe we should ban the Belfast Telegraph from using words like victim, justice, corruption, abuse, oppression and accountability?? When it suits, we have seen the Brits put a price on victimhood -when it was sticking Libya with the Bill -they have not put such a high price tag on their own use of violence and abuses of power. In fact they have tied retribution with welfare reforms, its one or the other.

    We have also seen the use of Closed Material Procedures to prevent families access to justice -its noticeable that the article does not argue on disclosure or accountability as a good healer.

  7. AM,

    Originally adopted as camouflage, or even if it is initially valid, the victimhood may become internalised to the point that its essence becomes more powerful than the addressing of its specific points.

    I guess I'm surer of my ground when discussing my own place (Glasgow/Scotland) than anywhere else.

    Observation: No doubt this was not always the case in human history, but in our lifetimes it is often fashionable to support and identify with "victims". We grow up watching cartoons, wanting Jerry the mouse to beat Tom the cat. Later on we support the Indians against the cowboys, the black South Africans against the whites, the Palestinians against the Israelis.

    While many or all of these choices may be ethical, it's important to make critical judgements in specific situations, rather than automatically suporting the perceived underdogs.

    However, such critical evaluations do not always occur, and victimhood becomes a form of currency. Hence, acquiring victimhood may increase agency.

    All of which is sad, as there is no shortage of authentic victims.

  8. RTW,

    I think there is a natural tendency to back the underdog, in sport and most other things. But you are right critical judgements have to be made otherwise we could find ourselves backing the German 6th Army once it was surrounded at Stalingrad. I think it is important to authentic victimhood because a failure to do so risks legitimising victimisers. If there are no rape victims, there are no rapists sort of thing.

    I think the passivity of victimhood is what negates agency but the activism of victimhood increases it.

    I share Diplock Court's misgivings about the piece. It suffers from a form of reductionism which reduces the sphere of the victim to a British state strategy without showing how it is strategically useful to the British state to have murder victims who were rendered such by the security services of the state.

  9. Ramon the Wolf

    You cite a number of scenarios which are known more for their inspiring support for the underdog. I do not think replacing the concept of underdog is accurately captured by calling the underdog the victim -many a time Tom the cat ends up the victim of his own conduct. This is so because jerry did not see himself as a victim anymore than many people up north do not -they struggle for survival and justice.

    In the context of Britons role in Ireland there is a bitter contest over who controls the past because that will be the foundation of how the history will be framed, for instance, but for the families perseverance, the brits can no longer claim to have shot dead nail bombers and gun men on Bloody Sunday. That they gunned down unarmed innocent people rings very different than how they wanted to portray themselves and us Irish. Britons true role in the Conflict has still to be fully told.

    I also see things differently than a number of commentators above do, in this way - once a person concedes defeat undeservedly then that is them finished. All I know is that I am not getting ulcers or cancer for what others did they can have those ailments not me.

  10. Christy,

    Agree completely with your point that underdogs shouldn't be synonymous with victims. Your first paragraph could be read as a metaphor for Britain's involvement in Ireland. The Brits being the cat, of course.

    Also agree with your points regarding the innocent dead on Bloody Sunday, the wider Irish / British historical narrative, and that the ownership of history is paramount.

    It's also true that my reading of Liam's piece suggests that it's possible to see the focus on individual victims as counterproductive to the pursuit of justice, in that this focus diverts attention from the bigger political picture.

    Similar to how neoliberal governments (i.e. pretty much all of them these days) exhort individuals to make themselves more employable. No doubt this can be justified in specific cases, but the cumulative effect is to construct employment as entirely the responsibility of the individual, not the state.

    Coming back to Liam's piece, could it be argued that individuals get some form of justice, but the wider community doesn't?

  11. Christy

    I'll leave leave it to Liam to address your criticisms of his article but I'd have to say that I seem to have taken something completely different from it than you appear to have. (I often feel that many of Liam's contributions could benefit from some skilled editing). As I read it, what Liam is drawing attention to is the sublimation of a political problem to a therapeutic one. The result of that when aligned to tribunals and with subsequent official apologies is to fudge the Brits own role in the conflict and obfuscate their contribution to the genesis of it too.

    You rightly make a distinction between underdog and victim. Likewise I'd make a distinction between victim and victim-hood. One can be a victim and not resign oneself to victim-hood. Victim-hood to me suggests getting ulcers. Whereas a victim potentially retains agency, just as you have demonstrated in your on-going and epic quest for justice.

  12. Wolf

    There were a lot of soothsayer projects financed by the peace process gravy train and anyone who did not fall under their rhythmic droning about victims/victimhood were brushed off as troublesome -one need only look at the fiasco of the Stormont House Agreement -those troublesome families from Derry were excluded while non-victims were invited to contribute by the virtue that they were professional salaried victims industry representatives.

    It is hard to quantify between the benefits to an individual against benefits to the wider public. I'm inclined to think everyone benefits from accountability and justice and not just the individual. If we worked to the maxim that justice is not available if only victims benefit from it then the justice system would only be available to those who can pay for it because the state would not do anything for the benefit of individuals and not the good of society.

    As for a governmental strategy they wanted victims controlled and manipulated like sheep -and select victims were prepared and presented to the media and it is probably on account of these that many people are turned off at the idea of adults being mollycuddled and wrapped in cotton wool as poor delicate creatures. Or those who only wanted to vent and express their own hatred and desire for revenge -look at many of the actual victims groups/campaigns -they rarely, if ever, present themselves as victims instead they are usually pragmatic and focused on getting at the truth/justice and they are not pampered but more often obstructed and frustrated by those with something to hide.


    On re-reading it I would agree with your assessment and I am harder on Liam than his article deserves.

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