By Jack Holland
In a recent debate about compensation for the victims of the Northern Ireland conflict, Mary Nelis, a Sinn Fein assembly member for Derry, in the course of objecting to categorizing some victims as "innocent," made an interesting statement on the nature of victimhood.
"Labeling some victims as innocent and, by implication, others as guilty, suggests that some were right and some were wrong."
"This," she went on to assert, "made nonsense of the historic compromise that is the Good Friday agreement."
The next day, the bishop of Meath and Kildare, Rev. Richard Clarke, also addressed the issue of victims. The Irish Times reported him as saying that there was a danger that the "unfashionable victims" of the North’s Troubles will be forgotten. He cited the victims of Bloody Friday, in July 1972, when a series of 21 Provisional IRA bombs went off in Belfast killing nine people, one of them a 14-year-old boy. The bishop said that the victims of Bloody Friday were now regarded as "a past that must be forgotten at all costs in the interests of political progress."
Clearly, the question of a victim’s "status" is politically loaded. Nelis believes that all victims are somehow equal, at least in the eyes of the Good Friday agreement. Clarke would undoubtedly contest that assertion, and not just on the grounds that some victims are in danger of being forgotten. Most people would find its moral ramifications disturbing. Take the case of Lenny Murphy. He was not only the leader of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang, specializing in hacking Catholics to death, he is also a victim of the Troubles. In November 1982, the Provisional IRA murdered him. So his name is down there on the list along with those he murdered. But is Murphy a victim in the same sense as his victims? Yes, according to the logic of the all-victims-are equal argument, Murphy’s death should be considered no different from that of Francis Crossan, whose throat he cut in an alleyway seven years earlier. It is morally "neutral" and cannot be considered either "right" or "wrong," Nelis argued. The logic of this, of course, puts the murderer on the same moral plane as his victim. Such a suggestion would be morally repulsive to the vast majority of people.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
In their eyes, there is a clear distinction between Francis Crossan’s death and that of Lenny Murphy. Crossan, who was a 34-year-old street sweeper, is an innocent victim. Murphy is not. Yes, he was the victim of an extrajudicial murder. But however much we might dislike the idea of an organization taking upon itself the right to judge and execute someone without recourse to even the semblance of judicial procedures, we cannot claim that Murphy is a victim of the Troubles in the same way that Crossan is. Murphy’s death was directly due to his previous actions, and he was singled out because of what he did. Crossan was murdered for no other reason than that he was a Catholic.
In legal terms, both men were victims of murder. In theory the law does not make a distinction. Morally we do.
The assertion that all victims are equal, and the conclusion that we should be morally neutral on the matter, is a direct product of the Good Friday agreement. The agreement has brought about the release of hundreds of convicted killers before they have finished their sentences, solely on the grounds that the organizations to which they belong are observing a cease-fire and are part of the peace process. (Indeed, if Murphy had been alive, and imprisoned for his crimes at the time of the agreement, he too would have walked free.) That is, all those convicted have been treated equally, regardless of what they did.
However, it does not follow from that that we can eradicate the categories of their victims. Common sense and ordinary decency demand that certain distinctions be maintained, such as that which allows us to categorize some victims as "innocent." The fact that this implies that "some were right and some wrong" would not shock most people, even though it seems to upset the Sinn Fein assembly member for Derry. Nearly everyone in Northern Ireland, and probably in Ireland as a whole, would regard some victims as right and some as wrong.
Take the cases of Francis Jordan and Carol Ann Kelly. Both were killed by British soldiers. But Jordan was an IRA man who was shot as he planted a bomb against the wall of a Protestant pub. Carol Ann Kelly was an 11-year-old schoolgirl who was returning from the shops with milk for her mother when she was killed by a soldier firing plastic bullets. Whatever one thinks of the IRA and its "right" to use force, it is reasonable to make a distinction between the two victims if only to say (adopting the morally minimalist position) that the death of one was more wrong than the death of the other.
Unfortunately, the bishop of Meath and Kildare is right when he asserts that some victims have become more "unfashionable" than others. I think what he means is that a certain kind of political correctness has crept into the discussion, which along with the plague of euphemisms generated by the peace process has obfuscated the use of language for many years now. It should not be surprising, then, if moral obfuscation should go along with it. The whole agreement was built on a fudge, and could not exist without a willingness to tolerate ambiguities. It is, after all, an extraordinary political compromise. The political compromise has, inevitably, led to a moral compromise.
Actually, the agreement has little to say about victims as such. Page 21, Paragraph 11, simply states the need to "acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation." It recognizes "the right to remember." In a divided society like Northern Ireland, each community will remember its own dead in its own way. Republicans will hail as heroes men that Unionists revile as murderers. But the truth is that the vast majority of the victims were neither. They were just ordinary people, and in every sense of the word, innocent. That distinction must not be forgotten.