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Victimising the Irish

The people of Northern Ireland are being asked to wear thorns to remind them of their suffering. Kevin Rooney explains

In May this year a report commissioned by the British government provided a comprehensive breakdown of the victims produced by the Northern Irish conflict from 1969 to December 1997. The report, 'We will remember them', detailed the religious, political and gender make-up of the 3585 people killed in the conflict.

The end of any war is a time for a period of reflection and the report certainly made me pause to remember those friends and family members that I had lost over the years. However, the report was not intended to produce a momentary reflection. Instead 'We will remember them' is part of a broader attempt to place the treatment of victims at the centre of the Irish peace process. This victim-centred approach has been enthusiastically endorsed by all sections of society and has seen the debate about how to honour the victims turn into a major national obsession. Along with the victims comes a celebration of the innocence of children. Bono from U2 led his concert for peace with a heartfelt appeal to 'remember the kids - think of the next generation'.

As others have noted, the form of the conflict in Northern Ireland has completely transformed over the past few years. The adversarial politics which underlined the clash between the struggle for a united Ireland and the continuation of British rule, has given way to a new discourse where all sides agree to compromise on their goals for the sake of peace. The recent discussions about how best to recognise the suffering caused by those adversarial politics have produced a morbid morality circus in which political representatives outdo each other in trying to become the champion of the victim.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, author of 'We will remember them', sets out to encourage a major debate about the most fitting memorial to those killed in the conflict. While proposing a number of options for discussion, his personal favourite is a special building in a garden of remembrance:

'The building should be a striking work of modern architecture, which would also house works of art contributed by communities or countries outside the North whose citizens had also suffered. It could contain an archive of the Troubles.'

Others are batting for a repeat of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, with a wall bearing the names of the 3585 dead.

Nowadays, the question of how to honour the dead is more contentious than the republican movement's historic acceptance of the principle of consent. The proposal for the Vietnam-style memorial was the most popular, until a major row broke out when Unionist politicians objected to the IRA's fallen being included - prompting Sinn Fein's withdrawal from the scheme.

The cult of the victim dominates every aspect of the peace process. While politicians may argue along sectarian lines, nobody questions the concept of organising politics around victimhood.

Secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, announced that the British government would appoint a 'minister for victims', who will be there to 'to understand and to listen'. Instead of arguing against the principle of this unprecedented new political post, people merely argued against Mo Mowlam's particular choice. So Sinn Fein, while accepting the need for a minister for victims, objected to Adam Ingram because he is also the minister in charge of armed forces in Northern Ireland - the very forces that have created 400 nationalist victims during the course of the war.

Mowlam and Ingram proceeded to set out a list of areas of consideration, including more compensation for victims of violence, a memorial day for victims, a possible South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the appointment of an official victims ombudsman.

There is a broad agreement that Northern Ireland needs a minister for victims - which is not that surprising given that all sides in the Northern Irish conflict now present themselves as victims. The main political groups in Northern Ireland act like schoolchildren looking for special help from their teachers. They put their hands up to say they are being badly treated and ask Miss Mowlam and Mr Blair to give them special favours to bring them into line with the other children in the class.

The republican movement used to boast that it had never asked Britain to leave Ireland, but had opted to force them out through armed struggle. Now leading republicans claim that the struggle was really about winning 'parity of esteem' with the Unionist community. According to Gerry Adams, all nationalists ever wanted was to be free from discrimination and for the British government to treat the nationalist tradition with the same respect as the Unionist tradition. Similarly, the Unionists knock on Tony Blair's door to protest that the Unionist tradition is falling victim to a green nationalist agenda.

Victim politics has entered the vacuum left by the exhaustion of nationalist and Unionist ideologies. And who better to take the lead than Tony Blair's New Labour government? Mo Mowlam is the personification of victim politics. At the start of her stint in the Northern Ireland Office, Mowlam went public in the media about her brain surgery. No profile of her is complete without several paragraphs on plucky Mo's personal struggle with illness. In sharp contrast to the stuffy officials that surround her in the Northern Ireland Office, Mowlam exudes humanity, hugging people she meets rather than shaking hands and thinking nothing of taking her wig off in public.

Touchy-feely Mowlam was the perfect candidate to oversee a process in which the political contest at the heart of the Northern Irish conflict has been replaced by a conflict between emotionally insecure groups seeking recognition for their identities and respect for their suffering.

But Mowlam's apparent affinity with the victims of the conflict was not altogether natural. She was one of a number of Labour MPs who attended a major conference in March 1995 run by leading psychotherapists and academics at the Tavistock Clinic, Britain's most prestigious centre for psychoanalysis. The contributors examined the need to develop the values of attachment and identity as the basis for a new kind of politics.

Mowlam is certainly not the only politician who is adept at the politics of emotion. Gerry Adams has repeatedly apologised for the pain and hurt caused by the republican struggle, while constantly reminding others that the nationalist community has suffered too. Adams even borrowed Bill Clinton's election slogan, 'I feel your pain'. Known in the past as the hardnosed face of terrorism, Adams has won praise for showing his emotions - admitting that he was 'pissed off' at Unionist intransigence or shedding tears after his party's historic decision to abandon abstentionism.

This politics of emotion has also allowed the hard men to reinvent themselves in the guise of sensitive souls. Adam Ingram, the new minister for victims, was the no-nonsense tough-talking politician who Neil Kinnock selected to smash the Militant tendency in the Labour Party, a job he executed with ruthless efficiency. The same Kenneth Bloomfield who wiped away tears as he presented his report on the victims of the conflict was chief civil servant to the Orange state that victimised nationalists over the past 25 years. But that's all right, because he's sorry now.

This politics of emotion is certainly not confined to politicians. The Northern Irish media is now dominated by statements from the myriad of victims' groups that have mushroomed during the course of the peace process. The Shankill Stress and Trauma Group complains that its voice is not being heard, while North Belfast Survivors of Trauma are happy that the government is paying more attention to their concerns.

In tune with the new climate, Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital has opened up a new trauma and therapy unit to counsel victims of the conflict and Mo Mowlam has said that other similar units will follow. The prime minister has announced a grant of several million to provide 'comprehensive and effective counselling initiatives' and, not to be left out, the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern has announced the establishment of a commission for those victims who died in the Irish Republic.

Nobody seems to have noted the irony that the explosion of initiatives for victims of violence has come about at the exact time that the fighting has finished and the suffering has abated. Is it not strange that when the war was at its most intense, claiming large numbers of victims, people apparently had no need of such support groups? The people of Northern Ireland are being asked by Bloomfield to wear sprigs of gorse. As the Irish Times reported, Bloomfield thought of the gorse because 'the thorns were a reminder of the suffering and sacrifice, while the bright blossoms spoke of freshness, renewal and rebirth'.

Far from facing a bright, fresh future, the people of Northern Ireland are to be subjected to a miserable period of dwelling on the past and revelling in their own frailty and victimhood.

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Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998

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