Dealing with the past: "There must never be a hierarchy of pain"

"I would like you to come with me to explore the past through the eyes of victims and survivors. It is difficult a very difficult place to get to and an even more difficult place to leave". Kathryn Stone, Victims' Commissioner for Northern Ireland.
Kathryn Stone
2 June 2014

This article is based on a speech made by Kathryn Stone at the ‘Women and Peace Building: Sharing the Learning’ event held in Belfast earlier this year. It is part of 5050's series on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

I was appointed to the post of Victims’ Commissioner in September 2012.  Before I came to Northern Ireland, having no experience whatsoever of living here, I naturally did a lot of reading and researching. I read a piece by a former Victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, who described the role as a "painful privilege”. I had no idea what that meant then, but I am acutely conscious of what it means now.

What does a Victims Commissioner do? My role is defined in statute but is essentially to promote the interests of victims and survivors. Simple. Except of course it’s not.  In Northern Ireland there are many things that are contested.  The definition of victim is one of them. The law, as it stands, is clear and states that a victim is someone who has been injured, someone who has been bereaved or someone caring for someone who has been injured.  The injury can be physical or psychological. It would seem on the face of it to be straightforward.  There are many in Northern Ireland who believe there should be a hierarchy of victims, that there are innocent victims and that “victim makers” should not be included in the definition of the victim.  That those who set out to kill and maim with guns or bombs and are killed themselves or injured as a result should be afforded no assistance whatsoever.

Other commentators have said that this approach does not appear to allow for those who were killed as a result of state collusion, those who were killed or injured for example in the events of Bloody Sunday or the BallyMurphy families.  Despite apologies from the Westminster government there seems to be little acknowledgment that these families and their loved ones were completely “innocent”.

Positions become entrenched and no one hears the other opinion as their opinion is the right one.  It is as though people think, by the very act of listening honestly and carefully - by hearing someone else’s story - you could be contaminated by it. Maybe what is really being talked about, it has been suggested, is a hierarchy of blame. One thing I am certain of here is there must never be a hierarchy of pain.  It is often said that the tears of the victim’s mother are the same colour as those of the mother of the man who set the bomb. No one wins; everyone hurts.

The Commission estimates that the number of victims and survivors of the conflict equates to approximately 500,000 people. Many people tell me it would have been hard not to have been affected living in Northern Ireland. Recently I was parking my car, when I was approached by the security guard.  He was a former RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] officer. At the end of his clearly upsetting description of what he had seen, what he had heard and what he had experienced, he said, “We are all victims here, love”.

A research report, 'Troubled Consequences', carried out by the Commission in partnership with the University of Ulster, found that four out of ten people in the region had experienced a traumatic event related to the ‘Troubles’ and that Northern Ireland has one of the highest recorded rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder anywhere in the world. Dr. Finnola Ferry said in the research that it was striking that Northern Ireland has such high levels of PTSD even compared to other areas of conflict.  She says that this is linked to the many years over which the conflict took place and to the inter and intra community nature of the violence. Such chronic mental health distress, at almost epidemic levels, impacts on physical health, emotional well being, on families, on communities, on your ability to work.

Within this context, my priority has been getting to meet as many victims and survivors as possible.  I think that it is important to hear their story, listen to their difficulties and identify issues that they want to see solved.  Indeed, since my appointment I have been carrying out an extensive programme of engagement with individuals, families, groups and organisations.  Recent experiences with the Special Advisers Bill, which barred anyone with a serious conviction from being a Special Advisor at Stormont, with the plans to build an International Peace building and reconciliation centre, Maze Long Kesh, on the site of the old Maze prison, with the On-the-Run issues, with the arrest of a man in connection with Jean McConville, show that unless we deal with the past in a strategic way it will keep haunting us and impeding progress. We will be forever defined by the past rather than informed by it.

Some are interested in the politics of Northern Ireland, others in the economics.  I am interested in people. How do I as the Commissioner tread a course through this diversity of opinion and these very different views and promote the interests of all victims and survivors? It’s not easy.  One of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge is ‘Dealing with the Past’. I would like you to come with me to explore the past through the eyes of victims and survivors.  It is a very difficult place to get to and an even more difficult place to leave.  These inherent difficulties are possibly why people have said victims should move on.  Put it all behind you.  Sure they'll all be dead soon and we can forget it.

My response is straightforward. We must never forget.  We must never try to put it all behind us.  For the many hundreds of victims and survivors I have spoken to, this is so offensive and insulting. For them, the past is something they deal with every day. The past is now. Here's why...

Claudy bomb memorial.

If you go out on a Sunday morning with your Dad, you come home but your Dad and eleven others don't, you want justice for that.  Twenty-five years later with no justice you are still dealing with the past.  The injuries you sustained and the chronic health problems you now experience as a result, mean you are dealing with the past every day.  The past is your present and will profoundly affect your future too.

If you are buried under a mountain of rubble and left permanently disabled, your marriage in shreds and your husband's physical and mental health destroyed, you want justice for that.  The injuries you sustained and the chronic health problems you now experience as a result mean you are dealing with the past every day.  What is the past for others is your present and will profoundly affect your future too.

If your child is shot by a stray bullet and you spend night after night sleeping on their gravestone because you can't bear for them to be alone and frightened, you want justice for that. Every birthday, every Christmas, every holiday, every child you see in a duffle coat, every child you hear crying means you deal with the past every day.  Every part of your present is profoundly affected and your future becomes something you never think about.  To do so without your little one is unbearable and almost a betrayal of him.

What if, as a result of doing your job in the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), you are left with a broken body and a broken mind, trying to explain to your children why your legs don't work and trying to keep from them the rage you have to let out somewhere that no one has been brought to justice for what happened to you the night your mate died when the bomb went off in the car you were both in.


Car bomb, Downpatrick. Circa 1980

A proud sister wrote to me with this about her brother, a former prisoner:

 “My brother was a victim of the war.  My brother would NEVER have told anyone his torment - he felt it would have been touting – laughable.  His children lost a father, we lost a brother and my parents lost their son and this was before he died.  The saddest part - no one cares.  But I care and that’s why I am telling you this.  So please help all those who need it.  I don’t like the word ‘victim’, but I know that’s a debate in itself.  I told you this for my brother (because he never got to tell anyone).  I love my brother and I thought I would tell this story for him.”


Titanic Memorial Garden, 2012. Image Source: Flickr / Txema Aguilar Sánchez

It has been my experience that it is the women of Northern Ireland who sacrificed most and suffered most. A quote by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield from his A Service to Remember Victims of Violence, 2001, illuminates what I found on those visits:

“Those who have studied with meticulous detail the cost of our so-called “Troubles” have pointed out that although the victims have come from many different elements in our community, the heaviest losses have been sustained amongst men.  This has had two consequences, the first of these is that in very large measure, it has been the task of women to bury the dead and care for the living.  Mothers have been left to mourn their sons and young widows to grieve for their husbands.  I want to pay a heartfelt tribute to the remarkable way in which the women of Northern Ireland have borne these terrible burdens.  Many of them, far from withdrawing into the privacy of a diminished family, have thrown themselves into a life of voluntary work for the good of our community.  In the worst of times, many such women have discovered within themselves new talents and new resources. I salute them all.”

I would also like to pay tribute to the women who serve on the Commission’s Victims and Survivors forum.  Women from all community backgrounds – women who served in uniform, women who lost loved ones, women who were seriously injured, women who were shot and wounded.  Women who help heal the broken bodies and broken minds of their families and communities. These women make a vital contribution to decision making in the Commission and I am grateful for the insights they bring from their lived experience.

So where does this leave us? How do we engage, acknowledge and support victims in Northern Ireland? Let me end with this. Victims must continue to show leadership.  We must listen to victims' views.  Without a careful and considered conversation we cannot begin to think about the future. Indeed, “a better and shared future” is a pipe dream for many victims – just words that take no account of the burning rage about the lack of justice, the not knowing, the grief that becomes all consuming and the pain of physical and psychological injuries.

I said that before I came to Northern Ireland I had read a piece by a former Victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, who described the role as a “painful privilege”.  It is my job, it is my ‘painful privilege’, to make sure that all victims voices are heard and for the rest of society, to make sure they listen.

Kathyrn Stone was speaking at the Women and Peace Building: Sharing the Learning’ event held in Belfast in March this year. It was organised by The Women’s Resource and Development Agency, Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and the National Women’s Council for Ireland.

This article is part of 50.50's series on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData