In our remembering we forget a lot

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The many who don’t want to listen should at least look; look at the pictures of the Victims Forum meeting in Donegal earlier this week – pictures included in a news report I did for UTV.

Spread over two days, their conversations at that meeting were not just about the past, but also about the future and the type of services and help victims and survivors will need.

 

Kathryn Stone

 

These are important discussions among a whole range of different people hurt by the many different sides during a decades-long conflict.

The Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone was at that meeting, held in a week which marks her sixth month in the job.

Last year she stepped into our developing peace and into a place where the wounds of the many ‘wars’ still need tended.

“For so many people that I’ve met and spoken to, the idea of drawing a line under the past is so offensive and so insulting,” she told me in an interview for that UTV report, and she also dismissed the trite notion that what happened here can somehow be “boxed away”.

When we look at those pictures of the Victims Forum meeting we should not take what we see for granted.

Eibhlin Glenholmes – a republican once described in the headline “most wanted” – is seen chatting in a group that includes Jennifer McNern, who lost both her legs in the Abercorn restaurant bomb in 1972.

This talking is not about cosy conversations.

How could it be after all that happened here?

In those ‘war’ years, the bombs and the bullets were never far away, sometimes in the next street or town or village – just around the corner.

Everybody knows someone.

So, this week Kathryn Stone talked about the people “for whom the past is their present”.

“It’s what they deal with every day,” she said.

“It’s what they live with every day. It’s not past. It’s now.”

The WAVE Trauma Group was also present at that Victims Forum meeting in Donegal and recently held its own conference at Queen’s University in Belfast

I’d popped my head in to listen for a while, to scribble a few notes, and sat up when one man spoke.

His name is Alex Bunting who was injured by an IRA booby-trap bomb back in 1991.

As he spoke, he said politicians viewed victims as “a political embarrassment”.

“We have to drive this process forward,” he said.

“We are caught in the middle.

“No one wants to listen – especially within politics,” he said.

There was no beating around the bush.

He said what he believes – that a process needed to recognise both what happened and what now needs to happen lacks the necessary political will.

One of the experts speaking at the conference described a situation in which the onus is “on the victim of the trauma to go looking for help”.

“We are always constructing this the wrong way round,” he said.

So the approach needs to be different, and Kathryn Stone has now floated a few ideas, including what she calls a “civilian covenant” and a pension for all victims.

She understands this will take this debate into another difficult conversation.

Remember the Eames/Bradley proposal for a £12,000 recognition payment for all victims, and remember the launch of the report in a charged atmosphere of confrontation.

That document containing many recommendations including a Legacy Commission with information-recovery and investigation units has since been shelved – like many of the victims of this place it has been ignored and forgotten; forgotten by those who hope the past can be boxed away.

It won’t be, of course, and the Victims Commissioner believes something – another initiative – is needed; some process to address the broad issues of truth, justice and acknowledgement and in a joined-up rather than scattered approach.

This will require a change in focus and emphasis, and in the waiting, what happens?

What happens is the headlines of conflict are remembered, and in that narrow remembering much is forgotten.

Most recently it has been Gibraltar, Milltown Cemetery, the Corporals killings and Warrington, and later this year it will be the 20th anniversaries of the Shankill bomb and the Greytsteel shootings.

“I think it’s right that we remember those things,” Kathryn Stone told me.

“But in remembering those big headline events we need to think about other people and those quiet little voices in the background,” she continued.

Recently she asked one woman what she would want and expect of the Victims Commissioner and the reply was that “the name of my little one is never forgotten”.

This is an example of the past being the present, a poignant illustration of why we should look and listen and why the victims and survivors of many ‘bloody days’ should be both seen and heard.

 


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

6 Comments

  1. Excellent article Brian. Part of the overall healing process is that the victims are properly listened to. This itself is a complex therapeutic process and needs not only empathy but certainly some training on part of the agencies engaging with the victims. I wonder how much genuine time, effort and resources have been invested in this important matter to aid the process.

    • Jim – There are those who believe they are not being heard and that they are having to drive a campaign for recognition. There must be some better way.

      • step one of the better way is recognizing these organizations exist and have something to contribute, kudos to you for giving them some coverage. i am sure there are thousands out there who are still living with some form of PTSD and it in no small way contributes to some of our wider societal ills –

        • One of the big pieces of unfinished business on this journey out of conflict is the challenge of doubling back to answer the questions of the past. That type of process, whatever we call it, and I have argued that we should stop using the word truth, needs political will to take shape. It’s more than four years since the last attempt within the Eames/Bradley report to build a structured approach. The Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone last week made clear in her interview that we need “something” that addresses the broad issues of information/justice/acknowledgement and in a joined-up rather than a scattered way.She is speaking at a seminar today (Wednesday) in which she will say that the continuing suffering of victims and survivors is “a scar on the conscience of this society”. And she will explain the role of the Victims Commission – to give victims and survivors a voice and she will tell the rest of us that society has a responsibility to listen.

  2. We need to tackle amnesty/non-amnesty or the whole shebang is a lot of flannel.

    Does anyone know the Forums slant on amnesty?

    • Raymond – you’re right the issue of amnesty/non-prosecution needs to be answered as part of trying to get to the information that people want. But we must also know what will be given in return for amnesty/non-prosecution in terms of levels of co-operation in any process on the past. These are things that need to be understood before any Commission is put in place. And it’s not just about republican and loyalist co-operation, but about the many different sides.

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