Friday, 24 July 2015

A warm welcome to our new Victims Commissioner: You can't always get what you want... but you might get what you need.

I would like to thank the oFM/dFM for finally agreeing on a new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors.  It has been over a year since Kathryn Stone stood down from this position: a position which is an integral cog in the structures set up to deal with the needs of those of us most affected by the years of political conflict. 

The Victims Commission was hamstrung by the absence of a figurehead, as was the Victims Forum.  Both bodies could formulate policies, bring forward ideas and take soundings from individual victims and victims groups but they could not present them to those with the power to put any of it into effect.  This was only in the gift of the Commissioner.

I wish our incoming Commissioner well.  Judith Thompson is taking on a challenging job.  She will be met with many demands from all quarters of the community.  Victims and survivors have many different needs and wants.  I would suggest that she focuses her attention on the needs rather than the wants. 

There are too many wants that, in reality, may never be satisfied.  The new Commissioner needs to be honest about the capabilities of this fractured post conflict society to deal with the wants of individual victims and survivors.  Their wants are varied, complex and mostly filled with an highly emotional sense of injustice.  Such high emotion is understandable: the harms inflicted upon this group of people have been atrocious. 

We see this harm manifest itself everywhere in our society.  Countless documentaries, newspaper articles, talk radio shows highlight the legacy of pain and loss.  Most of the discourse is negative and is focused on the extremes.  Victims are put up against other victims while many of our politicians indulge in the circular arguments of whataboutery, pointing to the pie charts of who killed the most: while an increasingly apathetic general public looks on in dismay.  Who could blame them?  Some of the arguments have even descended into the semantics of what we actually call the ‘Troubles’.

The incoming Commissioner needs to recognise this emotion but she also needs to look at the reality of what can be realised.  She needs to stay clear of the philosophical cul-de-sacs of defining who is a terrorist and who is a victim

Not all victims will get what they want but they should get what they need.  This is where the Commission comes in.  The previous Commissioner rightly shone a light on the problems faced by the Victims and Survivors Service and the Department of the oFM/dFM in delivering for a sizeable number of victims and survivors.  Our new champion will need the same tenacity if she is to keep check on a slow moving bureaucracy which tries to address individual and societal need.

The so-called victims and survivors sector could also do with an introspective examination.  It is often said that the thoughts and feelings of the victims are paramount and should come first when trying to deal with the past but I feel that this puts too much pressure on those who have to implement the proposed mechanisms.  We victims and survivors need to realise that we should not be put on pedestals and revered; we are not precious and without faults.  We are just normal members of society like everyone else.  We are natural stakeholders with valid opinions but we should not have a veto over any of the structures put forward in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA).  Our emotional responses, no matter how loud, should not be allowed to hold the rest of society back from dealing with the past.  There is too much disagreement and politicking.  The new Commissioner needs to find a way of implementing what can be agreed upon and she needs to do this quickly before it is too late.

I ask our new Commissioner to oversee the implementation of the relevant legacy sections of the SHA and to make sure that the current impasse over Welfare and the Budget is disentangled from outstanding legacy issues.  Legacy issues should be and should always have been standalone issues regardless of who holds power in Stormont or Westminster.  This is where our new Commissioner should shine a light and advocate: focus on what can be done now.  All of the research and policy formulation is done: what we need now is action.  Good luck Judith, you will need it.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Road to Srebrenica: The West's (Non)Response

It has been 20 years since the Srebrenica Massacre and the cheerleaders of the West's intervention were everywhere to be seen during the recent commemorations.  But where were they when it was all happening?  I hope that this piece will shed some light on their non-response to the slaughter in the Balkans during the 1990s:

The region of Yugoslavia that is now constituted as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was once the epicentre of a war that has had ramifications for how the world now looks at ‘intervention’ in conflict.  This essay will focus on the period leading up to the violent conflict, the war itself and the years following on from the peace.  The activities of actors external to BiH will be at the centre of this essay.

The creation of the state of BiH came out of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.  During the Cold War Yugoslavia was viewed as a somewhat modern, viable communist country with a growing economy which was almost entirely publicly owned. The population enjoyed many benefits including a one month paid holiday every year, free education, free healthcare, a guaranteed right to employment and a decent standard of living (Parenti, 1999).  Parenti (1999) puts forward the notion that the capitalistic West embarked on a ‘concerted’ mission to ‘dismember’ and ‘mutilate’ Yugoslavia in order to install a neo-liberal free market economy more conducive to the predatory form of capitalism that had flourished in the aftermath of the West’s victory in the Cold War.

During the 1970s, in an attempt to expand its industrial base and to increase consumer goods the Yugoslav government borrowed heavily from the West which led to a crippling debt crisis, exacerbated by hyperinflation (Lampe, Prickett, & Adamovic, 1996; Wight, 2014).  Yugoslavia, argues Parenti (1999) and Mansouri (2000), was to be the subject of some considerable ‘restructuring’and austerity programmes. To do this the country would require a dose of economic shock therapy utilising international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF (Klein, 2008).  The public sector services and social programmes that had kept Tito’s Yugoslav Republic, with its underlying ethno-nationalist rivalries, united would have to be abolished.  The standard of living decreased. Stability eroded.  With reference to Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs the basic human necessities such as food, shelter, safety and security that had long been provided in this socialist society began to vanish leading to a deterioration in the self-esteem and self-actualisation of the population with future devastating results.

The ‘ultimate goal’ of this treatment, according to Parenti (1999), would be ‘the privatization and Third Worldization of Yugoslavia’ in which this once unified country would be balkanised into a ‘cluster of weak right-wing principalities’; primarily pointing to the 1991 Foreign Operations Appropriation Act as evidence of the conscious attempt by the US to ‘dismember’ Yugoslavia.  This Act of Public Law provided that any part of Yugoslavia which failed to declare independence within six months would lose US financial supportand that any future aid would only be directed to the separate republics, on condition that they elected democratic parties, approved by the US State Department.  Economic sanctions on Belgrade were used as another weapon in the West’s intervention. Yugoslavia was doomed to disintegration.

The argument that external economic intervention led to the subsequent war is compelling.  With this in mind, any future interventions that followed should be viewed with caution.  Can the subsequent ‘humanitarian’ intervention by the West be categorised as a benign and altruistic undertaking?

The causes and context of the war in Yugoslavia are important.  As above, economic instability may be one factor.  Ancient ethnic hatreds were put forward as another reason (Blagojevic, 2009).  Gagnon (1994) disputes the notion that ethnic nationalist hatreds are the essential, primary cause of the conflict by pointing the finger at the ruling elites, within the ethnic groups themselves, manipulating ethnicity, culture and religion to solidify their own domestic power bases.

The West responded to the conflict engulfing Yugoslavia in various ways; not all being viewed as a success. Samantha Power (2003) argues that the West sat on its hands during the bloodiest period of the war in Yugoslavia.  Some believed that this was the correct course.  ‘We got no dog in this fight’ was a typical response (James Baker).  On the other hand, interventionists were intent on ripping up the Realist rulebook by claiming that the West was morally bound to intervene in the affairs of this sovereign nation to protect the Bosnian people.  The intention should be ‘… [T]o help the helpless’, in the words of Anthony Lake (in Mandelbaum, 1996), Clinton’s National Security Adviser.  The discourse that ensued in the new 24 hour news cycle on news networks may have played a part in how the US would respond to the conflict, a term that has become known as the ‘CNN effect’ (Robinson, 1999).  It has been argued that the reporting of events such as the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 led to a sea change in US public opinion on the war in BiH and thus a change in US foreign policy.  ‘After Srebrenica, nothing would ever be the same’, (Silber and Little, in Rozen, 2002, p.1063).  Previously, there had been little appetite to expend US blood and treasure to aid the war torn region. 

The West is viewed, especially in the mainstream Western media, as being the saviours of the Bosnian people from ‘unrelenting Serb expansionism’ (Boyd, in Parenti, 1999).  However any meaningful intervention to stop the killing stalled.  Candidate Clinton had earlier pledged to intervene in Yugoslavia to stop the fighting: President Clinton was more reticent (Mandelbaum, 1996; Smith, 1994).  Power (2003, p.307) alludes to the moral ambiguity of the Clinton Administration who chose to ‘blame the victim’ by promoting the story that there were atrocities on ‘all sides’ which led to equivocation.  However, the reporting, which blamed the Serbs aggressors, could be viewed as ‘consistently one-sided’ argues Parenti(1999). There is no argument that multiple atrocities and gross violations of human rights were carried out during the course of the conflict (Tabeau, 2009). 

Clinton came into his presidency in a world that was trying to come to terms with various new paradigms.  What was the role of the preeminent, predominant USA in a unipolar world and should the US become the world’s policeman?  Is there a need for NATO in a post-Cold War Europe?  Is the United Nations (UN) efficacious in conflict prevention?

Realists such as Mandelbaum (1996) have poured scorn on Clinton’s attempts to ‘help the helpless’ in that, the Clintons policies ‘made things worse’.  He cynically characterises the Clinton administration’s response as an attempt to ‘bolster [their own] political standing’ which was suffering from a failure to resolve the problem in BiH.  Clinton threatened military intervention early on but failed to carry out such attacks.  In a realist sense this inaction is detrimental to the US as it displays an air of weakness thus bolstering potential US challengers.Proponents of Realpolitik did not advise a humanitarian intervention in the Balkans.  National sovereignty, the primary tenet of realism, was one block to this.  It was also viewed that an intervention was not in the US national interest.  In contrast, Ramet (1992, p.98) predicted that the 1991 view of the war as a ‘Yugoslav affair’ soon transformed into a ‘European affair’ and would become ‘one that would affect U.S. interests as well’. 

A policy directive from the Clinton administration in May 1994 (Sciolino, 1994) suggested that the UN was ill-equipped to deal with conflicts such as BiH in the future.  Strict conditions were laid down as to when the US would consider involving troops in international operations under the auspices of the UN such as the ‘advancement of [US] interests … the presence of clear objectives … [and a clear exit strategy’ (Sciolino, 1994).  Presidential Decision Directive 25 attempts to absolve the US of the responsibility of ‘world policeman’ while also undermining the UN as an effective peacekeeping institution (Sciolino, 1994).

The UN’s role in BiH demands scrutiny.  Did the UN have a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ the victims (R2P, 2014)?  Why were the ‘safe havens’, as set out by a number of UN resolutions, not safe (White, 1997, p.126).  Kaldor (2007, p.125) points to the ‘inadequacy of the mandate’ as a possible reason for some failures in BiH.  White (1997) says that the UN peacekeepers were forced to concentrate on delivering humanitarian assistance to civilians while avoiding any confrontations with the warring parties due to vulnerability.  Diehl, Reifschneider and Hensel (1996) are critical of the UN as effective peacekeepers, peacemakers and peace-builders.  They (ibid., p.697 & p.685) find that the short-term goals of the UN’s efforts to stop fighting are ‘not enough to promote long-term conflict resolution’ and that ‘[it may be] … counterproductive in some instances’.

This begs the question, how can any intervention work in a conflict like that in BiH?  Does external intervention do more harm than good (Anderson, 1999)?  There are many arguments in favour of the notion that the war should have been left to play itself out (Luttwak, 1999; Boyd, 1995).  Luttwak, (1999) also accuses the Dutch UN troops of collaboration in the fall of Srebrenica by helping to separate the men from the rest of the population.   Should the West have just let the stronger party claim a decisive victory and shorten the conflict or to keep the arms embargo in place (Boyd, 1995); ‘… [t]here are enough arms there already’, proclaimed G.H. Bush (in Power, 2003). 

Then came the reports of genocide, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps.  Power (2003) talks of the analogies made to the Holocaust in WW2. The Western powers were also compared to the appeasers of 1938 Munich.  Lewis (in Power, 2003 p.278) called Bush ‘a veritable Neville Chamberlain’.  Dissenters to non-intervention such as Congressman McCloskey recounted the stories of the ghastly brutality visited upon the survivors and witnesses of so many atrocities (Power, 2003).  There were arguments as to whether what was happening in BiH could be classed as genocide made clear by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, (in Power, 2003, p.300) when he questioned whether these ‘… atrocious set of acts ... [met] the legal definition of genocide’.  McCloskey (in Power, 2003) argued that the threshold was set too high in that Nazi levels of killing should not be the marker for calling out genocide.  Power (2003, p.305) talks about the use of wording to downplay events by choosing phrases such as ‘tragedy’ over ‘terror’.

Liberal interventionists reject this theory of non-intervention. They advocate the use of military intervention to protect the weaker victims against the strong oppressors (Kaldor, 2013; Smith, 1994).  They rejected realpolitik terms like nations, interests and sovereignty; describing such terminology as dehumanising.  Machiavellian amorality should be set aside for a new moralpolitik (Russell-Johnston, 2001).  Liberal interventionists find themselves aligned with unlikely allies in the guise of the Neo-conservatives.  The neo-cons promote Manichean principles of good and evil when it comes to international politics and see the USA as the preeminent force for good in the world (The Phantom Victory, 2004; Boyd, 1995).  They also reject balance of power theories in favour of using the brute power of the US military industrial complex to change the world. 

The war ended with the Dayton peace Accords in 1995 however the legacy of the international response is ongoing.  BiH remains a country that remains in conflict. There may have been a peace process, which stopped the bloodshed, but the political process is incomplete.  The international community still has a say in the internal politics of BiH.  The Office of the High Representative (OHR) from the European Union acts as a proconsul overseeing the democratic process.  Mladen Ivanic (2005, p.275), a former Foreign Minister of BiH, characterised the international intervention as ‘successful’ but questioned the ‘paradoxically problematic role’ of the OHR into the future.  Manning (2006, p.724) expands on this continuing interference in the domestic politics of BiH by questioning the efforts of external state-builders who give primacy to getting the ‘right’ elites into power.  Nationalist parties would be sidelined, moderates encouraged, legislation removed, individuals ejected from office (Manning, 2006).  This interference mirrors the above 1991 US Foreign Appropriations Act which provided that the US would vet the results of free elections in the separate republics.  This display of arrogance by the international community portrays the population of BiH as being incapable of governing themselves and could further the seeds of resentment.  Ethno-nationalist ambitions are still evident in BiH most notably in Republika Sprska. 

In conclusion, the intervention in the Bosnian conflict could easily be described as messy.  Were the origins of the conflict born in the backrooms of Foggy Bottom, the White House, the Pentagon or Wall Street?  The lack of any early meaningful intervention to protect the population of BiH could be viewed as an indirect intervention in its own right.  Did the international community just leave this war to resolve itself?  Did the fighting only really stop when the warring parties had reached their objectives of making their areas ethnically pure?  There are many theories floating around the academic journals and far reaches of the World Wide Web as to how this war unfolded.  There are more ideas of how to finally resolve the ongoing tensions.  It remains to be seen how successful they will be.


Anderson, M. (1999) Do no harm: How Aid Can Support Peace - or War. London. Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

Blagojevic, B., (2009) ' Causes of Ethnic Conflict', Journal of Global Change and Governance, 3(1), pp.1-25, [online}. Available at: (Accessed: 20 April 2014).

Boyd, C.G., (1995) 'Making Peace with the Guilty: The Truth about Bosnia', Foreign Affairs, 74(5), pp.22-38, Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2014).

The Phantom Victory, (2004) The Power of Nightmares, Episode 2, BBC Two Television, 27 October. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 1 March 2014))

Diehl, P.F., Reifschneider, J., and Hensel, P.R., (1996) United Nations intervention and recurring conflict, International Organization, 50(4), pp.683-700, Available at:  (Accessed: 20 March 2014).

Gagnon, V.P., (1994) 'Ethnic Nationalism and International Conflict: The Case of Serbia', International Security, 19(3), pp.130-166, Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2014).

Ivanic, M., (2005) 'The International Community and Bosnia-Herzegovina', Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 18(2), pp.275-282, Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2014).

Kaldor, M., (2007) Human Security: Reflections on Globalization and Intervention. Cambridge. Polity Press.

Klein, N., (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 10 March 2014). Lampe, J.R., Prickett, R.O., & Adamovic, L.S., (1996) Yugoslav-American Economic Relations Since World War II. Durham, NC. Duke University Press.

Luttwak, E., (1999) 'Give War a Chance', Foreign Affairs, July, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 1 May 2014).

Mandelbaum, M., (1996)  'Foreign Policy as Social Work', Foreign Affairs, 75(1), Available at: (Accessed: 1 May 2014).

Manning, C., (2006) 'Political Elites and Democratic State-building Efforts in Bosnia and Iraq', Democratization, 13(5), pp.724-738, Available at: (Accessed: 11 February 2014).

Mansouri, G., (2000) Economic Motivation for the U.S./NATO War Against Yugoslavia, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 20 April 2014).

Maslow, A.H., (1943) 'A theory of human motivation', Psychological Review, 50(4), pp.370-396, Available at: (Accessed: 20 February 2014).

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Power, S., (2003) "A Problem from Hell" - America in the Age of Genocide. London. Flamingo.Ramet, S.P., (1992) 'War in the Balkans', Foreign Affairs, 71(4), pp.79-98, Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2014).

Robinson, P., (1999) 'The CNN effect: Can the news media drive foreign policy', Review of International Studies, 25(2), pp.301-309,

Rozen, L., (2002) 'The Balkans: Failing States and Ethnic Wars', Global Century: The Globalization and National Security Journal (2), pp.1055-1075, Available at: (Accessed: 15 April: 2014).

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White, N.D., (1997) Keeping the Peace, Manchester. Manchester University Press.

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Remembering: An individual recollection

When thinking about the themes of Remembering, Forgiving and Forgetting  I am drawn to my own story of what happened to me during our conflict.  About how I personally remember it.  My story is one of a physical attack on me in 1994.  An attempt to murder me.  To kill me.

I remember the attack well.  I am reminded of it every day.  I am now paralysed from the waist down.  I cannot walk. I am in constant chronic pain.  I remember it well.

I remember my home being taken over.  I remember my family being held hostage. I remember the fear.   I remember the relief when we thought they had left.  I remember them coming back.  I remember the shots being fired.  I remember the smell of gunpowder.  I remember sinking into the settee.  I remember floating off to my death.  I remember the panic and the pandemonium.  I remember my brother pulling me back.  I remember the ambulance.  I remember the hospital.  I remember waking up days later.  I remember being told I would never walk again.

This is all easy for me to remember.  I knew what happened.  I knew why it happened.  I was an easy target.  It was easy for those people to knock my door, wave their weapons and walk on in.  It was easy for them to pull the trigger.  I knew I was innocent.  But to them I was a Catholic, a Taig, a Fenian.  I would do.   That’s how I reconciled a very personal attack on me.  It was ‘nothing personal’.  That made sense to me.

I was able to accept this and live with it.  Until I read about how they remembered it.  It was a different account to my story, my truth, my account.  There was a passage in a book about Johnny Adair and C Company of the UFF which referred to the incident.  ‘Davy’ gave his account. I could not believe what I was reading.  It put across the notion that I was an IRA man.  This should not have shocked me.  Dozens of the killings mentioned in this book that were carried out by the UFF were justified by the gunmen as being attacks on the IRA itself when in fact they were just attacks on random civilians.

I should not have let this distortion get to me but it did.  My truth was being questioned.  My identity was being attacked again.  My memory of events were being challenged.  The waters muddied.  No smoke without fire.  I was now stigmatised.  ‘He must have been a bad boy’.  He must have deserved it.  That is the impression that a cursory reader of such a book would get.  ‘It must be true, sure it’s in a book’.  This is also the case for many of those killed and injured during the conflict.  He was a nail bomber.  He had a gun.  He was a legitimate target.  So we shot him.  End of story.

However it is not the end of the story.  How we remember as individuals is important.  How we remember as a society is important.  We need to find a better way to help people to tell their story, their way.  To counter the counter narrative.  To challenge the official accounts.  To challenge the rumours and insinuations.  To challenge the lies of the men in balaclavas with convenient pseudonyms like ‘Davy’. 

Many families and individuals will be resigned to the reality that they will never have their day in court to see the faces of the triggermen and the godfathers.  They may also never hear the truth as to why they were injured or killed.  But they should be allowed to give their truth, their story, in the way they remember it and for it to be heard and hopefully believed.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Forgetting: Forget about it!

Following on from an earlier post on forgiveness, I now want to think about forgetting.  I feel that this is an exercise in futility on an individual level: that said, it is and should be much easier as a society to forget.

My own individual situation is hard to forget.  I was left paralysed after being shot six times.  I suffer chronic pain every day.  I have issues with my personal care.  I need a wheelchair to get around.  I can’t forget what happened to me.  It is impossible.  However, I can live with it.  I am not bitter about it.  This is just the way I am now and this is the way it is going to be.  I don’t dwell on it.  I try to tackle it but I cannot just forget about it.

I cannot consign it to oblivion.  Nor can those who have lost loved ones.  The bereaved find it hard to forget.  Bereavement and injury through trauma and violence are imprinted on the memory in a different way to other ‘normal’ memory creation.  The brain processes such events in a way that the memories don’t fade.  Such memories are relived over and over every day as though they are actually happening in the here and now.  The problem is in how we deal with those memories and learn how to cope with them.  One cannot undo the event but we can try to incorporate it into our life journey.  Suppression, burying and forcing people to forget only make matters worse.  It should be left to the individual to decide how to deal with the memories.

Societies tend to forget a lot easier but this too cannot be forced.  It takes time to forget.  People of my generation and further back remember the big epoch-making events such as Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday.  They are remembered because they are imprinted in the memory as big traumatic events that were different from the humdrum of continuous bombings and killings in our low intensity conflict.  Everyone else forgets about the two minute news bulletins that brought us the news of another killing of a civilian, a soldier, a policeman or a paramilitary.  It didn’t really register; it was forgotten about.

What does register is being made to forget.  It does not work.  Attempts by governments and institutions to make us forget about the horrific events are counterproductive.  Whitewashes and cover ups do not work.  Trying to forget something will have the opposite effect.  Issues need to be dealt with and resolved.  People need to be honest with themselves and so do societies emerging from conflict.  We need to know everything.  Niggling doubts play on the mind of the individual as well as societies.  Individuals need closure.  This will hopefully give societies closure.  Only then can our communities really forget.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Examining our Myths: A Blood Sacrifice or Just Seeing the World?

One cannot escape the endless advertising campaigns to recruit young people to the Armed Forces of the UK.  The same thing happens across the world.  All nations recruit.  You will find them in schools, on Youtube, on TV, on the radio, on massive billboards and more recently at the Tall Ships event in Belfast.

Alongside the pay and the pensions, the chance to travel the world, and the access to free fitness training facilities, the main shtick that is employed is the promotion of the training and career opportunities that a life in the Forces will provide.  A life in the Forces will create bonds and friendships that will be lifelong.  The recruits will join up, get all the training, see a bit of action, retire, and enjoy the rest of their lives.

There is no mention of the high probability that you could be killed, maimed, or left with severe psychological problems due to the service that you will be ordered to give once you put on the uniform.  This is because the young people who join the Forces don’t think like that.  Most young people live in the moment.  Danger is attractive; it is all part of the adventure.  Besides, ‘it can’t happen to me’ is the mind-set.  There is no talk of the ultimate sacrifice for Queen and Country.  That only happens when it happens: up to then, it’s all just a big adventure.

This has always been the case.  Those who join up don’t think they are going to be harmed: it's just human nature; a defence mechanism.  This was probably the way it was during World War One too.  You only have to look at the recruiting posters from the time.  The initial thinking was that it will all be ‘over by Christmas’; Christmas 1914, that is.  It was not over by Christmas 1914 as we all know, in fact, it went on until the end of 1918 but the subsequent propaganda posters called for one ‘Final Push’ to defeat the Hun.  Just another few more recruits would do the trick.  The Hun was on his back and we just had to go over and stick the bayonet into his heart. Easy-peasy.  There was no talk of the ultimate blood sacrifice.

This myth came later.  The 99th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme has just passed and we all await the centenary commemorations next year.  A lot will be made of the blood sacrifice that was made by the men of the UVF who gave their all for the freedom of Ulster.  Had it not been for their personal sacrifice then Ulster would surely have been lost to Rome.  This is the myth that we have grown up with.  It is a myth that that Northern Ireland was built upon.  I would like to ask the question: is this true? 

Did all of the young men who left their Ulster homes think that they were going to France to die for the soul of Ulster?  Or did they think that they would be back home after a few months in sunny France?  Was it because of peer group pressure and the stigma of being branded a shirker?  

I have trouble believing that the many thousands who lost their lives on the first few days at the Somme thought that that was how they would die or did they believe the hype of an easy life in the trenches as portrayed in the posters at the time?  A sacrifice, in my eyes, is to give yourself up, in the face of a certain death, for a higher cause.  Did these young men think that certain death was inevitable?  Was it a conscious individual sacrifice?  Or did the blood sacrifice that we hear of today only occur when the mortars, bullets, bayonets and gas did their job on them?

I am open for challenge on my questions and I hope that there can be a wider debate around some of the myths that hold strong in our society.  I am not trying to denigrate the memories that people have of those who died in France and Belgium during WW1 but I am asking people to look beyond the myths and ask themselves what would you be thinking at the bottom of the ladder about to go over the top.  Would you have been thinking about the soul of Ulster or was it just an adventure gone wrong that looked far better on the 1914 billboards or on a stall at the Tall Ships?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Je Reste Charlie: A German view of a Troubled Belfast

I am sharing a link to an interesting website ( which, taken from the perspective of a team of German journalists, shines a light on our wee country.  I was interviewed, along with a few others, about our experiences of the conflict and in particular finding out how people from around the world can become resilient in the aftermath of trauma and terror.

When talking to our young German visitors I sensed that they were focused on the Catholic versus Protestant dynamic that is common among many people on the outside looking in.  This is something that filters through in their section dealing with Northern Ireland.  They also conveyed to me a sense of gloom among many of the people living in and walking about Belfast.  I put this down to the really bad spell of rain that drenched our city a few weeks ago into which they arrived but they felt that Belfast was a city of the walking dead.  A depressing observation which counters the Northern Ireland Tourist Board narrative that we should all ‘Be Inspired’ by Belfast.

There is also a simplistic piece on the nightly gathering at Twaddell Avenue but they called it as they saw it.  I sensed that they were very fearful when they visited the area.  They felt the tension in the air and feared that violence could erupt there at any time.  I don’t think they will be back up there anytime soon.

Anyway, I will let you judge for yourselves and try not to be too critical of some of the prose as I think that it may be lost in translation.  Especially the line where the author innocuously describes my ‘…mighty neck, that adjoins [my] face round as a ball, just like a smiley balloon’.  It reminds me of a friend who would compare my head to that of an ‘Albuquerque Turnip’. ;-)

Friday, 3 July 2015

Forgiveness: who decides?

I often hear it said that it is wrong to ask individuals if they have forgiven the person that has harmed them.  It may even be more insulting to tell them to forgive a harm especially one that caused a death or injury.  The victim should decide if and when they forgive.  This may be true on an individual level but should it be the case on a wider societal level?

It seems to me that this is the basis for a lot of the ‘whataboutery’ we hear in our country.  I have been listening to this all of my life.  It’s all about how one community did such and such to the other community and we are meant to feel individually harmed by this.  I was born in 1972 – the year of Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday.  These, epoch making events, are seen as seminal moments in how our communities reacted to the cycle of violence, fear and retribution.  Both communities look at these events and other well-known atrocities as attacks on them, not just on the community as a whole, but personally and individually: even those yet to be born.  For many people, such events were the reason they joined the fight. 

I disagree with this analysis.  Communities should not take it personally.  They should not be allowed to decide on whether another community should be forgiven or not.  They were attacks on the individual victims and survivors.  It is for the individual victims and survivors to decide whether they forgive the harms done to them.  The same consideration should not be given to the two communities on a societal level.

The ‘harmed’ communities should not be allowed to hold onto their bitterness, anger and outrage.  I feel it is a faux outrage.  ‘They’ did this to ‘us’. ‘We’ cannot forgive ‘them’.  It blames a whole other community for individual harms.  

Our politicians should not be allowed to hold onto grudges for their community.  Victims campaigners should be challenged when they claim to speak for the ‘victims’.  They do not represent all victims and survivors.  I feel that some of these campaigners hold people back.  This corporate outrage prevents individual forgiveness and reconciliation.  Breaking the ranks and putting out the hand of friendship and peace is frowned upon.  Forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be offered until the sinner repents! (

It is time for individual acts of forgiveness and reconciliation to be allowed.  This unhelpful self-righteous anger on behalf of your community or your people should be challenged.  Individuals should be allowed, in their own time, to choose their own method of dealing with the harms visited upon them.  They should not be made to feel guilty; they are not betraying anyone.  It should be their choice as individuals.