“Victims’ voice and visibility: disruption and discomfort”
At the Victimhood and Dealing with the Past Conference, QUB, 14th May 2018
Thanks to Cheryl and Kieran for thinking of asking me to speak. I used the opportunity to think about when victims are seen and when they are heard.
Often this is at different times.
Victims are rarely heard as part of a rights-based framework. Victims are nearly always placed in a position where they are asked to elicit a sympathetic or at least an understanding emotional response to their “story”. Rather than on the basis of their rights as citizens who have suffered harms. That is a powerful disadvantage where the conflict is contested, and many will only offer sympathy on the basis of their own experience of the conflict. Pay attention to how you feel today regarding who is speaking and what they say, does it fit with your analysis of the conflict and is your level of comfort associated with that? If you think you are “above” all of that, pay attention to that perception too.
The first and often only time victims of our conflict were seen was at the funerals of their loved ones.
Today when incidents are recalled in media pieces there will often be the funeral images. Or the scene of the killing. Often not always.
For the most contentious of the killings, say Loughgall, or Warrenpoint, it is always the scene of the killing that is shown – never the funerals. This is deliberate de-sensitisation.
After the funerals, unless it was an especially high profile killing, the visibility of the victims disappeared. The word forgotten is repeatedly used.
If we hear the families it will be when they are interviewed about the killings. That is sometimes, though rarely around the time of the killing. Grief will have often prevented next of kin talking at the time if they were asked, or more likely they were not asked to comment at the time. The RUC or/and local politicians will have usually spoken about the circumstances and the politics of the time.
So, it is usually years later we hear the voices for the first time. That voice can be to raise issues around memory, outstanding issues surrounding the killings, or, very rarely, the outstanding needs for victims.
It is important we think about how victims are seen or heard. They go about their lives in exactly the same way as they always have. Being seen or heard is a deliberate choice of those who make victims seen and heard. The amplifiers. Those with platforms, microphones and cameras.
And how that presentation is done is particularly instructive.
Those of us who have the privilege of working with victims know when victims are usually approached by media outlets. The big-ticket days. Reform of policing. Big collusion stories. Big anniversaries. Usually victims are the contextual fillers. It is rare that they are the story. But there is usually a similar positioning of victims. As separated constituencies, who separately suffered harms and separately approach dealing with the past in wholly different ways. I will contest that this is part of the problem. Division is fostered in that lazy approach to making victims visible.
The story on RUC reform was about the political shifts and positions that occurred. Unionism resisting the change and nationalism welcoming the change. And all of the nuances and grey areas that existed within that. That was the story. Interspersed in that were the voices of the RUC families who lost loved ones, and were in pain, and the families of victims of the RUC who were in pain. Their experiences actually did not make a huge impact on the political debate but what it did was validate the two narratives that were competing. So it looks understandable on one hand. But. What the framing of that did was to say that these constituencies of people in pain were divided. That their needs were different.
But actually, while their experience of conflict may have come from different actors their experience of suffering and long-term needs were not so different. But it was handled in a divided way.
Injured police officers got pensions, RUC widows got pensions, the victims of the RUC got the Police Ombudsman. When actually all of those families all needed support with injuries, long term financial support and independent investigations. Had we opened up universal approaches to ensure equality for all victims to access rights-based support much contest might have been avoided. Had we framed it in terms of rights rather than a bias to perceived need. Are the media part of that?
Contest is promoted while initiatives designed to build understanding and healing are not. Unless the person doing “understanding and healing” is privileged. There is a class bias that undercuts so much – what is acceptable and promoted and what is not. The ferocious brave and groundbreaking peace work carried out in working class areas for so long went unnoticed.
Nowhere are the double standards more evident than in commemoration and memorialisation. How we view those who engaged in conflict is contested depending on your experience and background. Families who mourn their dead can be attacked depending on your perspective of that. No matter how private or dignified such commemoration might be. And it has to be said class is part of that, but largely it is the overriding messages regarding the legitimacy of the state narrative of the conflict and a delegitimating of those commemorating non-state actors. The attacks on families commemorating their loved ones last year when remembering those killed in Clonoe and Loughgall as part of a political attack on the new northern leader of Sinn Féin was particularly tawdry.
The question of how victims are portrayed in the media is linked to the framing of the conflict itself. Some victims are more sympathy evoking than others. Civilians, state actors and non-state actors are all viewed differently in death both externally and internally in their own communities. That will often inform any media coverage which will infer an acceptable hierarchy, that is blind to the contested nature of our conflict, and places a horrible burden on families.
Victims are asked often asked if they can forgive those who caused the harms, asked to engage in reconciliation, implying that to engage in such acts makes them acceptable victims. Rarely is bearing witness to their voice accompanied with recognition that victims are holders of rights as citizens and in law. Victims, without being offered the dignity of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence are asked to forgive and thereby make everyone else more comfortable.
Asking for rights causes discomfort because it challenges all of those who engaged in conflict. And it challenges the narratives of those who do not want their narrative of the conflict challenged.
Victims with contested experiences, victims whose loved ones were engaged in actions and whose experience does not fit with acceptable narratives are asked to justify their victimhood before they state their experience – that is something which is not expected of others. Victims of state violence have to state and prove that their loved ones were “innocent” before some, including mainstream newspapers think they are worthy of due process. When the legal process will actually determine the legality of a killing. Families’ rights are secondary to the view of sympathetic victims and the compelling requirement to uphold one narrative.
Sometimes the media reiterate official lies while families seek official accounts to overturn through the legitimate use the new reformed criminal justice system. One newspaper report in July last year called a 14 year old boy killed by the British army a terrorist as a vehicle for questioning the legacy inquest system. The impunity of the state in the killing is only matched by the impunity of the journalist in question who writes scurrilous allegations about families and those who support them.
One of the crassest examples I can think of was a journalist in the home of an elderly woman who had lost two sons, one who was killed in an action was a member of a non-state grouping and she said to this woman “very few would have sympathy for you” – to a mother who lost two sons. I often wonder why the journalist felt that was in the public interest when the woman was articulating her need for an independent investigation into the killings of both of her sons. People’s sympathy was irrelevant. Was the journalist so discomforted by the rights of this woman she needed to explicitly exclude sympathy for her.
That journalist is by no means a cruel or vindictive person. By no means. But she made a decision in that moment and the broadcaster broadcast it.
An approach which relies on the feelings that can be evoked from the reader/viewer for positive or negative ends results in Victims’ disempowerment. This could well be unthinking from many journalists and commentators, but the overall thrust is deliberate.
When victims speak of rights and assert these, they are portrayed by the current and previous secretary of state as pursuing “pernicious narratives”. Their legal protection as victims is somehow foregone because they dare to disrupt the consensus on the state’s narrative of the conflict and of the peace process. Victims, from every background disrupt and discomfort those who want this to be easy. Perhaps because the past year has seen such political upheaval this seems less pronounced, but if the institutions were put back up believe me the inconvenient voices and visibility of victims would once again come into sharp relief.
Victims are a reminder to all of those who participated in the conflict – state and non-state – that an accounting must be had. And not a perfunctory or cursory nod of the head in victims’ direction. Not an inquest verdict that says a killing was unjustified and everyone can go home. Real accountability, whatever for that takes.
No wonder there was little or no mention of failures in legacy in recent coverage of GFA anniversary events
Victimhood is deeply gendered. 91% of our dead were male. In the debate very often in the victims sector male voices are strategic and women’s voices when heard are as victims – widows and mothers of some of those dead. There are of course a number of consistent voices of women heard in a strategic way, Clara Reilly and Sandra Peake are two prominent and obvious examples. And of course the CEO of the VSS and Commissioner are women. But we need to pay attention to how women who suffered violations and hold rights are participating in this debate and particularly the consultation.
We never hear women strip searched or who experienced torture. We rarely hear of women actors in either state or non-state organisations. We consistently see victimhood as equalling the bereaved. My speech reflects that in many ways. There are of course the injured, who experienced violations whilst imprisoned, those whose homes were raided/attacked and those who experiences conflict related sexual violence.
Anyone interjecting with those experiences, rather than being viewed as ensuring our view of the conflict is more complete and rich, is disrupting the tiny space of legacy which has become exclusive. Might this have been a lot better had a larger scope of injury been included in the debate a lot earlier? Perhaps. But in the legacy debate surely the wider scope of harms needs to be examined and that needs a structured approach. That would be a rights-based approach and an approach that spoke to the conflict as it was experienced.
So I’m for a bit of disruption and discomfort. And I think that is likely the role of the media too, not to follow established narratives, not to disempower those who disrupt and discomfort but to amplify their voices, not in a way to undermine peace or process, but to make them richer, more diverse and more reflective of the conflict we actually lived through.