“Sleeping with the victims” – The many ghosts in the Maze

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Daniel Libeskind (left) and Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation’s Terence Brannigan pictured on site at the old Maze prison.


The past is full of poison – and every day it seeps into the present.

That’s the reality of our here and now – the reality of political and people failure.

It is why we are in a mess over the Maze/Long Kesh peace centre project – and why every day this place gets more and more tangled up in what happened, but rarely explores the why.

We need thinkers to set us free and to save the next generation from our bitterness, our experiences and our inability to think a way out of yesteryear and into today and tomorrow.

Whatever else our politicians can do, there is one thing on which they are failing miserably – and that is addressing the past.

Years after the Eames/Bradley document and proposals were binned we now have the Robinson ‘letter from America’ and the political earthquake it triggered.

There are cracks everywhere; opening up in a very public squabble – making a nonsense and a mockery of joined-up or partnership government.

Perhaps the Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone summed it up best describing those who will feel “triumphant” with others left “despairing”.

This is the tug-of-war being played with the past – with victims being pulled one direction and then another.

“If you don’t acknowledge and address the past this will happen time and time again,” the Commissioner said.

The latest row played out everywhere on Thursday – on August 15th, and it was that day I spoke with the Commissioner.

“Today is 15 years since the Omagh bomb,” she said – “and while all this controversy is generating so much more heat than light, there are families grieving the loss of their loved ones,” she added.


First Minister Peter Robinson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, Kathryn Stone and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/niexecutive/7921663868/


Recently with my journalist colleague Eamonn Mallie I spoke to the Victims Forum after being asked to talk about the role of the media in reporting conflict and peace.

I told them they should decide how and where they want to tell their stories, and then they should tell Richard Haass – the US Diplomat due here soon to chair an all-party talks initiative on flags, parades and the past.

Talking to local politicians leaves this conversation going round in circles and going nowhere.

On Wednesday night Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams tweeted: “Supporting the Ballymurphy families. We need an international based truth recovery process.”

I replied to his tweet: “Only when we know who will participate and under what terms.

“Will Haass be able to answer that question – if not, where next?” I asked.

It is the question, because if Haass can’t find some way through then people will continue to be pulled under in this swamp that is our past.

In recent years I have spoken to politicians, journalists, academics and conflict resolution practitioners from Libya, Iraq, Israel, India, Pakistan and South Africa – also to Basque, Lebanese and Palestinian visitors.

They come here to learn from our experiences and to share theirs, and the peace centre is where this could happen.

No one said it is where the victims should tell their stories, but it can be where some stories are told.


The Maze Prison


I remember interviewing a loyalist after his release from the Maze – and I will always remember his words about “sleeping with the victims”, meaning unable to sleep with his conscience.

He was later found hanging – and in my eyes he is also a victim of our circumstances and our history.

Thousands of criminals – republican and loyalist – didn’t grow out of the ground one day.

Something happened; but this is the context that many don’t want to explore because it will disturb a simplistic narrative.

So, they just blame those who went to jail – republican and loyalist – and walk away.

It is the easy way out.

What is much more difficult to accept and explore is that there is no one narrative and no one truth.

I saw it inside the Victims Forum in how the room divides itself – who sits where.

I also saw the hurt in people’s faces – heard it in their silence.

Stephen Gault was in the room.

He was injured in the Enniskillen bomb and his father Samuel was killed.

How difficult would it be for the IRA to admit that in placing and detonating that device they knew that civilians would be killed and injured?

Is it a truth too hard to tell?

The PUL community has been hurt; as have the Catholic, nationalist republican community, the police family, the military family.

All their stories need to be recorded and remembered; remembered because this place forgets a lot; and it’s not just about the actions of republicans and loyalists, but others – in other uniforms and in hidden corners – who were part of what happened.

Before the republican commemoration in Castlederg, I argued on this site that we need to think about quiet remembering without parades; that no one has to march through hurt and protest and controversy to prove they haven’t forgotten.

I also argued that this is not just a challenge for republicans.

Loyalists – the UVF, the UDA and Red Hand Commando – remember their dead on Remembrance Sunday.

No one bats an eyelid.

Unionists are in government with Martin McGuinness.

Unionist politicians sit in the same halls as loyalist leaders discussing parades and other matters, and what does that tell us?

It says that those who were part of the conflict helped make the peace, and are part of a continuing story.

The Maze/Long Kesh will also always be part of that story.

Of course, there are those who will tell it differently, and they should be allowed to do so.

As I wrote earlier, there is no one narrative and no one truth.

Sleeping with the victims – those words, that day – is a comment I will never forget.

It’s time to end the different wars – and it’s time to complete the peace.


Libeskinds proposed Maze Peace Centre

Libeskinds proposed Maze Peace Centre


(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)


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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'.


  1. What the people voted for in the GFA has not been delivered and it doesn’t look as if it ever will be with the Stormont Assembly,
    The best thing that could happen now would be London-Dublin temporary joint sovreignty/governance.
    The two secretaries of state could deliver all that hasn’t been promised since the agreements were signed, address some bread and butter issues and give the people time to assimilate the changes. MLAs would be jobless (think how much the UK would save;otherwise the money could be used for implementing the deliverables). MPs could opt for Westminster or the Dail. and so on.

    See http://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/interim-joint-sovereignty-the-only-option/

    • Is it a truth too hard to tell? The hardest truth to tell is for a republican to name who carried out the remembrance day massacre.
      The majority of people in the Unionist community would fall into the Raze the Maze camp, overwhelming majority.

  2. Saturday evening Deputy First Minister @M_McGuinness_SF will comment on the Maze/Long Kesh fallout and is expected to describe DUP position as a mistake. He is due to speak at a commemoration event, and will also comment on the upcoming @RichardHaass talks initiative on flags/parades/past.

    • Barry Fennell on

      This key debate and the Maze/Long Kesh fallout seems set to continue – unfortunately. There has to be alternatives. John Loughran, for example, highlights the need for this different approach in terms of why and how we got here: “….multiple truths and multiple narratives and all the many unheard voices
      must be included….what cannot be avoided is a wider examination of
      the causes of conflict.”

      As a society we have to understand and come to terms we also have to truly listen to all stories. We not only have to relate and care about what victims are saying we have to know precisely what happened to them and why. In terms of true transformation this is a big ask and this is where the British state become uneasy. It is however required. A holistic approach perhaps to deal with the ghosts and the long shadows cast by conflict – without such a holistic process, the drip drip of disclosures will continue to destabilise our fragile peace process.

  3. Ciaran McNally on

    I’m far from being a trained psychoanalyst, but when Mr Rowan writes perceptively about the tendency to blame “those who want to jail” and walk away from responsibility, I can’t help but think about Melanie Klein’s “paranoid-schizoid position”, where perceived threats are dealt with by splitting the world into good and bad and believing that the bad exists only outside of ourselves i.e. paranoia. The more mature mode of thinking is the “depressive position” where we realise the uncomfortable truth that we are all both good and bad and therefore there is no “ideal object” any more. I would suggest that in NI we are idealising too many things at the expense of dealing with each other as the flawed humans that we are.

    • Ciaran – welcome to eamonnmallie.com This debate – the challenge of addressing the past – asks us all to open our minds. Thanks for joining the conversation and please stay involved.

  4. John Loughran on

    In his recent posting “Sleeping with Victims” Brian Rowan presents three challenges that I have sought to bring my thoughts to when he states:

    – “Thousands of criminals – republican and loyalist – didn’t grow out of the ground one day.  Something happened; but this is the context that many don’t want to explore because it will disturb a simplistic narrative.”

    – “this place gets more and more tangled up in what happened, but rarely explores the why”,

    -“We need thinkers to think a way out of yesteryear and into today and tomorrow”

    As I understand Brian’s posting we really need to start talking about understanding the conflict frame for therein lies the explanation and validation for the different communal narratives of conflict.  To this I want to offer some thoughts on the importance of framing the conflict accurately, and how not having done will only further destabilising the present and conclude by offering some thoughts on what may be done.

    That we are in a quandary on how to deal with or live with the past is no more than a statement of the obvious.  It is clear that the British state are not up for addressing their role as the lead conflict actor.  I make this point not to point score or absolve others but to reaffirm that the it is state who should act as guardian of the rule of law – that did not happen in the North through conflict period.  There is ample evidence of state wrongdoing from the damning De Silva Report into the death of Pat Finucane, the HMIC indictment of the HET double standards, the recent Article 2 rulings. The list is endless.

    Add to that the questions around the Omagh Bomb, the Enniskillen atrocity the McGurks Campaign or the Kingsmills killings our quandary is getting deeper! It is no longer a drip but a continuous daily torrent for bereaved families who are either ‘triumphant’ or ‘despairing’ at the news that they hear dependent on how they viewed the conflict. Equally other conflict actors have huge questions to face not just the state.  In essence all these conflict atrocities scopes out a conflict picture that raises more questions and in effect challenge the ‘official’ state version of the conflict. Yet despite this torrent of family demands for truth we have no agreed narrative about the causes of conflict!  Why is that?

    Its in this context that the political interference by the NIO to deny the Larmour family papers about their mothers death must be viewed.  The NIO intervention is essentially designed to protect the ‘official’ state narrative of conflict and their role in it – in other words they will do all in their gift to prevent a narrative emerging that places the state in the dock along with all other conflict actors!

    Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement their intervention will do no more than undermine confidence in the rule of law. The democratic fabric of a new and emerging Northern state here is also brought into question.  

    The irony is that the decision by DCAL Minister Caral Ni Chuilin should be welcomed as it has the potential to set a legal precedent that would advance the cause of truth for all victims.  She has sought openly to set a new legal trajectory – fresh and imaginative which challenges the dark secrets of the old order – and to open the files which would be a welcome first step in designing a victim-centred approach to truth.  Something that could and should be built upon.

    Sadly in the midst of this toxic debate – where there is resistance and no agreement on the causes of conflict or an agreed conflict narrative –  the issues of victims and those seriously injured and psychologically ruined by conflict are now chips to be used, traded and bargained as some seek political advantage!  It is disturbing to think where it will all end!  

    The DUP decision to withdraw their political support from the Conflict Resolution Centre and the passing of the Anti-Agreement Special Advisors Bill  – also evident in the NIO legal challenge to the DCAL Minister – is a fightback to protect the narrowly constructed a victim-perpetrator model. They too are resistant to an examination of the causes of conflict.  They much prefer a simplistic approach to the past that avoids any examination of the role of ‘others in uniforms and hidden corners’ that have big questions to answer about the nature, causes and consequences of our recent conflict.  

    Just as Brian talks of the Loyalist prisoner who sleeps with his victims there is a societal challenge not to endorse but at least better understand the choices thousands of young men and women made either as defenders or aggressors or by joining state forces.  This will be part of the painful compromises needed if we are to stem the downward toxic spiral that only makes engaging with the legacy of the past more difficult.

    There are no simple answers just more questions.  It is such that there are many more stories, multiple narratives and multiple truths to our conflict – many of which have nit been told.  If we are to address the past this must be acknowledged as an essential starting point.  That does not imply that we are bound to accept that narratives of others but at a minimum we must accept their right to hold and express their narrative.  Neither does it excuse or airbrush the responsibility of Republicans to assist families in their pursuit of truth.  There is a moral imperative that this process happens sooner rather than later.

    Sadly the consequences of conflict are lived by families on a daily basis.  There will be no justice for the deceased.  What is needed however is a process that facilitates families in their journey for truth?  The big question is who is up for the debate?  In this conversation about the question of the past it is no longer adequate to discuss ‘what’ happened, but ‘why’ it happened and ‘who’ created the conditions?  While I have cited De Silva and the HMIC Report it is evident that the existing disparate processes for dealing with the past are insufficient for families of non-state actions.  This brings me back to the starting point which is that part of dealing or engaging with the past is that we understand the conflict context.

    Beyond the posturing it is essential collectively engage with the fundamental question which is how the Northern Irish conflict happen in a liberal democratic state? This is the question that our local politicians cannot engage with. If we are to move beyond the past as a veto in the present we need to ask the question how come over 3,700 lives were lost, 50,000  injured and upwards of 30,000 young men and women spent in excess of 175,000 years imprisoned in a liberal-democratic state that had an expressed commitment to international human rights duties?

    In summary to prevent this downward toxic spiral we must constantly remind ourselves that dealing with the past will require generosity and imagination – it will also incur costs and require compromise.  A focused process is required, taking as its starting point recognition of all pain and loss from all involved in conflict.  The challenge for all is such that we can’t tell our story or share our to the detriment of others painful and unpalatable as that maybe – it is a fact that there are multiple truths and multiple narratives and all the many unheard voices must be included. But what cannot be avoided is a wider examination of the causes of conflict. 

    It is too serious and emotive an issue to be left solely on the shoulders of our politicians alone.  In this context victims ‘chips to be used, traded and bargained’ but a resource in framing and shaping a new approach to dealing with the past that takes it out of ‘too difficult’ box – that’s what our future demands!

    • John – you clearly understand the context in which I use the sentence: “Thousands of criminals – republican and loyalist – didn’t grow out of the ground one day.” You understand it because you also quote the next sentence. I am arguing that we need to move away from a simplistic and narrow narrative of labels and blame . Some others have missed that point. We also need to think not just about the ‘what’ but the ‘why’. I agree entirely with you on the need for a focused process recognising all pain and loss.

  5. Great article and some very insightful replies. As an ex prisoner I can totally understand the concept sleeping with victims because I seen and heard the manifestations on daily basis. However my main point on the simplistic narrative is that the PUL appear to be latching onto the post 9/11 narrative and the war on terror adopted by the US neocons. I have heard PUL spokespeople describe Republicans to Islamist in the same sentence as evil against their implicit good.

  6. The Mad Monk ® on

    The past is full of poison? As is today Brian, nothing seeping through as most of the Republican players from the past are at Stormont, when did it stop and when did it begin to seep through? Here’s a thought , have they shifted from armalite to words as the new war tool? You bet they have, that is reality, reality is we’ve all moved away from armed combat, the fundamental principles which engulfed thirty years of conflict still remian though, nothing is being seeped through , could it ( the hate) still be there without the violence? I reckon so.
    We are in a mess over MLK because the DUP decided to agree to something without the full consent of the Unionist electorate, the very ramblings of Donaldson and others from the DUP telling us working class to get in line was so out of touch with reality, reality is, no one from Unionism bar the DUP wanted MLK, apart from the UPRG and UDA, yes , they’ve their own agenda too regarding conflict reconciliation, but it’s so out of touch with my community and its wishes over the future of MLK, bar a few thousand who support them. Yet it is evident that after Robinson made that statement pulling out of MLK, ask yourself this, why all the noise from SF if it isn’t a shrine to those 10 and a justification of their campaign?
    We’ve already had a generation born after the ceasefires now connected to dissident republicanism and loyalism, all this while addressing the past, trying to move forward, will the same apply? I think so. The past ? Shouldn’t we be looking to get away from the past? Why should victims hold us all to ransom regarding inquests and inquiries? There are many victims who have had many unpleasant upbringings due to parents being active so to speak , are their kids not victims too? Many kids never saw their dads because they were out doing whatever twenty four seven, you cannot differentiate between the two sets of victims, because in my eyes they all are victims. Which now brings me to what most will disagree with , how about all the players, actors, governments making a joint statement, everyone sitting together , quite simple , an apology, everyone has the same script, one by one the same message, victims wont like it, but are we going to be hearing about someone in the distant future looking justice and the truth regarding a great great uncle they’ve never met? Where and when does it end?
    Now onto parading, Castlederg is in no way compared to an OO parade, big difference, really big difference, what everyone seems to forget is the UVF parade in their own area, not in towns that are 60-40% (to quote SF’s Barry McElduff), the republican movement have as evcery right to remember as anyone, including those from the RBL, or present army, everyone#’s a right to remember , it’s how and where you do it that’s the key to the topic at hand. The PC is caught in the middle , each decision they make sees a winner and a loser, the losing side retaliate with violence, maybe we should be putting more energy into the future and now than the past and victims before more victims are made…….

  7. John Loughran on

    Brian you raise the question as to ‘why’ our conflict happened.  I get in your analysis that you have a fundamental belief that an investigation or process is required to investigate the causes, nature and extent of our conflict and that all conflict actors must be involved.   

    In this response – building on the last one- I want to offer some more thoughts on the ‘why’ question as to why the conflict happened that you originally raised and I also want to posit another ‘why’ question.

    In main contribution you stated: “All their stories need to be recorded and remembered; remembered because this place forgets a lot; and it’s not just about the actions of republicans and loyalists, but others – in other uniforms and in hidden corners – who were part of what happened.”  This should be the starting point for any new approach to engaging or making sense of the past.  To break the current impasse there must a a clear unequivocal recognition that all sides – state and non-state – done terrible things.  No process will work if we start or adapt an exclusive official conflict frame – or simplistic narrative – that is designed to insulate the state and present a narrow construction of ‘state and criminals’.  

    This is 2013 not 1973.  The simplistic 1973 propaganda driven narrative is no longer sustainable never mind credible in 2013 – evidenced in the Saville Report, Stevens Investigations, De Silva and the HMIC Report.  So it makes sense that victims stories genuinely shape a new narrative of our conflict and as such we cannot start with a view that state actions were legitimate or that the actions of all others were justifiable.  

    A game changer is needed.  

    What we need is a rights based victim-centred narrative informed by bitter loss and injury – shaped from the bottom.   A narrative that reflects all experiences and all loss with equal respect and which engages many unheard voices.  It is in this context that Barry Fennell has argued that we may hear and genuinely listen to what all victims are saying and to know what happened to them and why!  I genuinely don’t believe that even today we understand adequately the narratives of ‘others’ however defined.  And in not understanding division is fuelled and the past becomes ever more toxic.

    So to your ‘why did the conflict happen question’ I just want to posit an additional ‘why’ question.  That is ‘why’ are so many people, agencies and institutions with such disparate views now engaging with the question of the past – for few seem to be on the same page. (Actually its the use of the victims issue for political purposes which makes it more difficult to genuinely address – as evidenced around the SPAD and MLK debacles!)

    Questions must be asked of all those voices who engage in the past debate.  Are they interested in:

    – Truth for all bereaved families or just their own;
    – Developing a legal precedent for right to truth;
    – Protecting their own exclusive conflict narrative;
    – Battling the conflict by other means;
    – Promoting healing and reconciliation;
    – Using the past to prevent progress in the present.

    If so then they need to make their intentions clear.  For as things stand simplistic and emotive – and at times disrespectful – language is adapted and used to dismiss the loss and experience of others.  While there will never be consensus on the causes of conflict at a minimum we must respect that people have the right to tell their story as they see fit and their loss or injury respected.  In other words must caution must be exercised around this category of ‘innocent victims’! In other words the subtle and grossly offensive political creation of an ‘innocent victims’ category must end as it offers little but reinforces a hierarchy of victims and loss.  It would be much more productive if all loss was equally acknowledged, recognised and validated as all families grieve equally.

    I make these points for unless we can collectively agree ‘why’ as a society engaging and making sense of the past is so vitally important then perhaps we may need to revisit our motivations for engaging in this process at all.  It must be more than perpetual point scoring and destabilising progress in the present.  Indeed the Declan Kearney headed Sinn Fein reconciliation process has created a framework for Republicans to account for past actions – which has the potential I believe to go much further.  Questions must be asked where is the reciprocation or similarly imaginative proposals from the British or Irish state, the DUP or other voices?

    Yet we all hope that the Haass Talks may assist in new thinking.  Actually it’s shameful that there is no proposals on the table beyond Sinn Féin thinking.  Why is that?

    For me the outcome of the Haass deliberations at best will be no more than a nominal statement that what happened should never happen again. It will nit address victims issues.

    In the current context it may at least put the brakes on the downward spiral where post is contaminating present. The poker game of self-righteous justification from some quarters certainly does not help victims particularly when a new openness and honesty is required.  

    There will and should be challenges for all.  For example when we speak or commemorate the past there must be a sensitivity and a conflict awareness to the needs of others who have a different lived experience and to those who have lost loved ones.  Haass may well look at a ‘Legacy Protocol’ about what ethical or sensitive remembering looks like or how past conflict actions are commemorated publicly in a different era.  

    Whatever Haass brings he also needs to look to engage beyond the political community towards families, communities and NGOs.  Therein he may find some fresh innovation and inspiration and in doing so put all victims and their right to truth core to his deliberations.

    For instance when we as families remembered our loved ones six of whom were killed by the British state 40 years ago in February we also publicly acknowledged – and stated in our literature – that we too as families recognised the pain of other families from neighbouring Unionist communities.  Equally a number of years back as part of the New Lodge RESPECT programme there was a minute silence held at the Memorial Garden in memory of ALL lives lost.  Such actions define a heartfelt desire to acknowledge all loss as equal.  In essence what both acts demonstrate is that it is possible to tell your personal and community story of loss without undermining the different narratives of detailing the loss of others.

    If we are to realise that ‘Never Again’ is our desired outcome from engaging this legacy issue gestures of such generosity equally demonstrate a challenge to others to reciprocate.  

    Which brings me to my final point. 

    We are all aware of the downward political spiral that we are now in. Against this backdrop I am struck by what The Mad Monk contributed almost talking about a sequenced and choreographed common act of acknowledgement by all conflict actors – something on the apology continuum that sought to create a new frame within which the past may be engaged.  

    Without new thinking or imagination there will be no agreed outcome on why we are societally dealing with the past – the ‘Never Again’ outcome will be as elusive as ever.

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