Who are the victims of the Troubles?

The word ‘victim’ is  probably the most passionately-disputed term to emerge from the Troubles. Much of the discussion has raged around the notion that not only those who were killed but those who did the killing might be described as victims.  This is seen by many relatives of those who were killed as insulting: how could we consider the paramilitary who went out to set off a bomb be equated with the people that he killed? Or – less frequently given as an example – how could British soldiers and the ‘security’ forces who unlawfully killed or conspired to kill Catholics be equated with those they killed?

Complicating things further is the addition of the adjective ‘innocent’ – as in innocent victim.  This is usually inserted when people want to make clear that the person killed was not in any way involved with the conflict.  They weren’t members of the ‘security’ forces or of republican or loyalist paramilitary groupings.  They were ordinary, uninvolved, innocent civilians.

The notion of innocence becomes even more complicated when we look at people who, while not combatants, made it clear by word or deed that they were in sympathy with one side or another.  This can be hard to judge. For example, were the Catholic people of West Belfast in sympathy with the actions of the IRA? Were the people of East Belfast in sympathy with the actions of the UVF or the UDA?  While one might have one’s suspicions, it’s unfair to classify every member of a community as supportive or not supportive of paramilitary groups – or the ‘security’ forces.  We need to look at the words and, more important, deeds of individuals before we can make even a tentative judgement.

Then there is the knotty problem of a hierarchy of victims. We all know that some names of those killed in the conflict receive more sympathy than others- the most striking one that comes to mind is the killing of Jean McConville, a  mother of nine, by the IRA.  The killing of Joan Connolly, a mother of eight,  by British soldiers, gets considerably less prominence. The reason for the discrepancy?  Some victims are more useful than others. 

So much depends on how you see the big picture. If you see the Troubles as an assault on law and order by bloody-minded republicans, then you will have little hesitation in rejecting the IRA and other republican paramilitaries and classifying those they attacked as the true victims of the troubles . If, however, you see Ireland    as England’s first and last colony, you might well see those who resisted British forces as patriots intent on freeing their country from a more powerful neighbour.

It makes the brain ache to such an extent there’s a temptation to give up on the very word ‘victim’. But that would be to leave the field to others. Those who control and frame the past quickly become those who control and frame the future. We should be strong enough to challenge such people at every turn.

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