Memory narratives

By Mark Thompson

AT the weekend an event, ‘Armed Forces Jobs and Trades Fair’, was held at the ‘King’s Hall, Belfast, the aim of which was to recruit young people and graduates; recruiting and training people with a technological skills base that, when all is stripped away, said and done, will be utilised for the purposes of death and destruction of the type witnessed in Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It’s the type of technology we have witnessed being used against the defenceless people of Palestine.

This same weekend happened also to be the twentieth anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire, an event that has undoubtedly transformed this society and set in place a trajectory of political, social and civic change unimaginable back in the early stages of 1994. Thankfully this was soon followed by a combined loyalist ceasefire. Much still remains to be achieved with political and other resistance to change manifesting itself virtually in every contested aspect of this society – not least around dealing with the past, where truth and accountability are so desperately required and which we at Relatives for Justice (RFJ) believe are key to moving society collectively forward.

For the thousands bereaved and those injured with permanent and psychological scars during the conflict, the ceasefires came too late. For the bereaved, August 31, 1994 held more mixed emotions than most with their thoughts focusing on family, friends, and comrades who died, especially those in the months, weeks and even days beforehand. A sense of meaningless loss was greater the nearer you got to the ceasefires and even with the passage of time is still palpable. On a human level the very basic question of why still remains. But many lives have been saved by the ceasefires and we must value and not lose sight of this too.

Of course the British forces and their government never called a ceasefire but they did engage in a significant programme of demilitarisation and overt security changes across the north. In terms of everyday civic policing this has changed beyond recognition from what it was and in that regard the RUC are effectively gone. For those not affected by the conflict the central argument in terms of policing is no different to that elsewhere in a modern society. Having said that, when viewing policing through the prism of loss involving the state, whether it was direct killings or indirectly through collusion, there is little change. And this is one area in particular where the type of resistance referred to exists strongly, i.e. political and intelligence policing. It is an area where vested interest has clear objectives to conceal what happened and to which we regularly gets glimpses: the recent threat of legal action against the PSNI by the Police Ombudsman concerning the failure to provide access to intelligence on scores of murders; the exposing of the sham PSNI Historical Enquiries Team (HET) by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies; the web of murders across East Tyrone, mostly of republicans, and the deceit by the RUC, and continued by elements within the PSNI, in covering up the ballistic history of the two weapons used in 18 murders and four attempted murders, as recently revealed at the inquest into the murder of Tyrone OAP Roseanne Mallon.And of course plastic bullets remain.

There will be much written and broadcast this week and likely over the next few months marking the twentieth anniversary of events that shaped so much. Lots of families have been in contact with RFJ with reflections arising out of this anniversary. A consistent theme is that for those bereaved by the RUC and British Army there has been little to no reference to their loss in much of the media coverage despite the London Government and their forces being centrally involved; or as one former Secretary of State conceded in a meeting with RFJ: “Yes, the British are a protagonist in the conflict.” And so once again these families listen to reporting that excludes their experiences.

There has been no exploration of the causes and extent of the conflict, merely the reporting of the consequences, which is oftentimes very convenient. Even at that, this focus is for the most part only on one actor to the conflict. When loyalist violence is mentioned it is void of the governmental policy objective that was collusion-driven and intensified in the run into the ceasefires that sought to terrorise, demoralise and weaken nationalists and republicans prior to negotiations. Such editorial omissions are shameful. As one relative put it: “If you landed from Mars and put the radio or TV on you’d think the only people who did anything were republicans and that loyalist violence was simply reactionary. ”

In August 1998, and in conjunction with Féile An Phobáil, RFJ held an event entitled ‘Forgotten Victims’. The event was a direct response to the deliberate manufacturing of a ‘hierarchy’ of victimhood following a report by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield commissioned by the British Government’s Northern Ireland Office (NIO). Bloomfield’s report called for the appointment of a “champion” for victims and led to the appointment of then NIO Minister Adam Ingram as ‘Minister for Victims’. Ingram was also the British Minister for the Armed Forces. Those bereaved by British forces saw the appointment by the British Government as a measure of the contempt shown towards themand many would argue still exists. It was insult to injury.

Twenty years on, let’s not make a similar mistake by again seeking to create a ‘hierarchy’ or set the dominant, or the only, narrative as that of the ‘two sides’. And just because the British Government and its forces didn’t announce a ceasefire as such shouldn’t mean that the victims of direct state violence don’t feature. Why not interview the victims of state violence in the context of demilitarisation and what the removal of British soldiers from our streets meant to them? And is there a case to be made too that within a post-conflict society still struggling with the contested nature of that past we should have a moratorium on events such as that which took place at the weekend in the King’s Hall? After all, the British Government and its armed forces killed and maimed hundreds directly.

Maybe we should spare a thought for those victims and how they might feel as society remembers all the other victims of the conflict whilst those responsible for their loss continue recruiting in a city where they also caused so much death, devastation, and destruction.

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