The peace process has put significant emphasis on the ''victims' of the conflict. The 1998 Belfast Agreement stated:
The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families.
From Kenneth Bloomfield's report published shortly after on 29 April 1998 to the Eames-Bradley proposals made public on 28 January 2009 and the recent 'Fresh Start' agreement, 'victims' have been at the centre of Northern Ireland's political discourse.
A search made in 2013 in the archives section of the online version of the Belfast Telegraph brought up more than 9000 articles on the 'victims' of the conflict from the 1990s onwards. According to the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors, from 1998 to 2010 over £80 million has been invested in developing the Northern Ireland victims sector. By 2014 there were almost 50 dedicated victim and survivor groups in operation in Northern Ireland, rising to 90 when 'parallel providers' (who do not work only with conflict related victims) are included. Indeed obviously sympathetic commentators, such as Sir Kenneth Bloomfield (himself the victim of an IRA bomb), have bemoaned the development of a “victims industry” in Northern Ireland. (Kieran McEvoy & Peter Shirlow (2013) The Northern Ireland Peace Process and ‘Terroristic’ Narratives, Terrorism and Political Violence, 25:2, 164)
This 'victims industry' is closely connected to a 'victim culture'. People are fighting to be recognised as being 'more' of a victim or a more 'deserving' victim than others. There is no agreed definition of what a 'victim' of the conflict is or who can fit into that category. But as the psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose noted: "Victimhood is an event. It is something that happens to you. The moment it becomes an identity, psychological or political, then I think you're finished." (Conversations with Jacqueline Rose, London : Seagull Books, 2010, 93) From active subject, people define themselves as victim instead. The central importance given to this 'victim' discourse is symptomatic not only of the crisis of republicanism and unionism, but of a general weakened sense of agency.
The problem of 'victims' raises that of 'therapy culture'. Most studies in the existing literature stress that the population of the six counties has been heavily traumatised by the conflict there. A study providing epidemiological estimates of trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and associated mental disorders in Northern Ireland with a focus on the impact of the conflict using data from the NI Study of Health and Stress (NISHS) as well as a representative epidemiological survey of adults in the region estimated that 60.6% of people there had a lifetime traumatic event, and 39.0% experienced a presumed conflict-related event. (B.P.Bunting, F.R. Ferry, S.D. Murphy, S.M.O'Neill, and D. Bolton (2013), Trauma Associated With Civil Conflict and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence From the Northern Ireland Study of Health and Stress, Journal of Trauma and Stress, 26:1, 134–141) Another report on the trans-generational impact of the conflict also found that more than 213,000 people in Northern Ireland are experiencing significant mental health problems as a result of the conflict. (C. Downes, E. Harrison, D. Curran, M. Kavanagh (2013), The trauma still goes on... : the multigenerational legacy of Northern Ireland's conflict, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 18:4, 583-603) The existence of such 'trauma' brings the issue of 'healing' and how people affected can move forward.
The problem with current approaches is that they understand 'trauma' as essentially a medical and mental health issue and medicalise 'healing' They reduce what is a political problem to a therapeutic one. This introspective, individualised and depoliticised approach promotes a view of the human subject as inherently vulnerable and in need of professional support (a perspective similar to 'victim culture'), what Frank Furedi has called 'therapy culture'. Furedi interestingly points to evidence for this new therapeutic sensibility in the increase in citations of the words ‘stress’, ‘syndrome’, ‘counselling’ and ‘trauma’ (the latter increased tenfold from less than 500 mentions to over 5,000) in British newspapers between 1994 and 2000. The start date is significant as 1994 is the year of the ceasefires that marked the public phase of the peace process. (Frank Furedi (2003), Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, London: Routledge, 4-7)
However one should bear in mind that 'healing' is only one means of dealing with the legacy of violent conflict, and one that is not necessarily favoured by those who have been affected by the Troubles. The Report of the Victims Commissioner, for example, noted that groups representing those who had been killed directly by state forces, or killed in instances allegedly involving state collusion between the state and Loyalist death squads, expressed a firm view that revelation of the full truth of these controversial events was far more important for the victims they represented than any other consideration.
The relatives who are searching for 'truth’ frame the issue of dealing with the past in terms of ‘justice’ rather than in terms of ‘healing’. Healing, if it is considered at all, is viewed as a secondary issue and one that will be an outcome of achieving justice. When we talk about 'healing' war-torn societies we should recognise that healing is not a discrete process that only takes place in a therapeutic setting; it is tied up with wider questions of social justice and normative concerns about what type of society we all want to inhabit. Ultimately, these wider issues can only be addressed in the political domain. (Chris Gilligan (2006) "Traumatised by peace? A critique of five assumptions in the theory and practice of conflict-related trauma policy in Northern Ireland", Policy & Politics, 34:2, 335 and 339-340)
But a major obstacle to those wider issues being properly addressed in the political domain is that some of the approaches with dealing with the past tend to reduce history to psychodrama. The best example of this was the Facing The Truth programmes broadcast by BBC in March 2006 in which Desmond Tutu brought people who had lost relatives in the conflict with the person responsible for their loss in the hope of encouraging them to make gestures of forgiveness and reconciliation in front of the cameras. This became in effect a denial of a political approach to dealing with a past that looked beyond interpersonal encounters to the structural causes of conflict and violence. (Bill Rolston (2007) "Facing Reality: The media, the past and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland", Crime Media Culture, 3:3, 359)
In his essay 'On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness', Jacques Derrida shows the difficulties associated with the concepts of 'forgiveness' and 'reconciliation' and the tensions that can arise between the two. Using the South African Truth Commission of Desmond Tutu as an example, Derrida argues that the concept of 'forgiveness' is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. There are tensions between individual 'forgiveness' and national 'reconciliation', and the state could avoid being held accountable if everything was simply a matter of individual 'forgiveness'. 'Forgiveness' and 'reconciliation' are therefore not synonymous and can fall short of 'justice'. (Jacques Derrida (1997), Cosmopolites de Tous les Pays, Encore un Effort!, Paris : Galilée, 38ff)
This last point is particularly relevant if one looks at official 'apologies' given by the British state for some of its actions during the conflict in the north. A recent study critically examining the nature, role and function of official apologies with respect to conflict-related deaths in Northern Ireland concludes by suggesting that a pattern of official apologies without accountability and acceptance of responsibility is emerging in Northern Ireland; that official apologies can function as a way to shield state institutions, deflect further scrutiny, deny culpability, avoid effective redress and placate and silence victims.
In this context historical injustice may be intensified rather than rectified, causing more harm than good, at best glossing over past wrongs and at worst facilitating impunity and re-traumatising victims. (Patricia Lundy & Bill Rolston (2016), "Redress for past harms? Official apologies in Northern Ireland," International Journal of Human Rights, 20:1, 104-122) The paradox is that the very need to apologise for some of its actions during the conflict represents an attempt to justify them which can only increase the guilt of the British state. What Paul de Man wrote in a famous passage of Allegories of Reading is directly relevant to the British state's apologies:
Excuses not only accuse but they carry out the verdict implicit in their accusation
... Excuses generate the very guilt they exonerate, though always in excess or by default...No excuse can ever hope to catch up with such a proliferation of guilt." (Paul de Man (1979), Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust, New Haven, Yale University Press, 293 and 299)
The issue of official 'apologies' rose in the context of the many official enquiries that have taken place since 1998: more than £500 million has been spent by the British government (and to a lesser extent by Leinster House) for inquiries into some controversial incidents of the conflict. (Mike Tomlinson (2012), "From counter-terrorism to criminal justice: transformation or business as usual?" Howard Journal, 51:5, 449)
The most important of those inquiries has been the Saville Inquiry. On 29 January 1998 British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised an official inquiry into Bloody Sunday, and on 15 June 2010 the Saville Inquiry made its conclusions public. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday lasted 12 years and cost £195 million, making it the longest and most expensive public inquiry in UK history. In comparison the official inquiry into the 9/11 attack in the USA in which 2,995 people lost their lives lasted for 20 months, interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses in 10 countries, reviewed more than 2.5million pages of documentation and cost $15 million. The Saville Inquiry shows how 'inquiry culture' connects with both therapy and victim culture and provide new means for the British state to reassert its authority in the six counties. As Brendan O'Neill put it:
The impact of the rewriting of the Bloody Sunday story by the modern British state has been twofold: first, it has helped to dehistoricise that day; and second, it has helped turn it into a vehicle for therapeutic intervention into the lives of people in Northern Ireland, who apparently require a new army of British-funded experts to help them come to terms with their tragic pasts . Indeed, so thorough has been the lawyerly makeover of Bloody Sunday that the British state, the author of the atrocity, can now assume its moral authority in Ireland through taking an apologetic approach to such tragic historic events. In scolding some of its soldiers and offering apologies to their victims, the British state has extricated itself from the history and politics of Bloody Sunday, taking the elevated position of a dispassionate fixer of past wrongs. Today, one of the key ways Britain justifies its continuing presence in Ireland is as a moral manager of the past, a facilitator of reconciliation between hurting communities - and its moral hijacking of Bloody Sunday has been a key plank in this rehabilitation of its rule in a neighbouring nation ... Bloody Sunday was not a freak incident in which paras ‘lost control’ - it was part of a war by the British state to maintain control over its colony of Northern Ireland. And now, 40 years on, that same tragic event is used by the same British state to reassert, in therapeutic terms, its governance of Northern Ireland." ( Brendan O’Neill, "The moral hijacking of Bloody Sunday", Spiked online, 30 January 2012)
The Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014 promised another £150 million to be spent over the next five years to deal with the 'past' about which there is no consensus. From the previous inquiries it is possible to have an idea about how the debate about the past is going to be framed:
The end result is a shallow debate about the past, where questions about who was fundamentally responsible for the conflict are evaded, and an uncritical approach in the present, where the authority of the British state in Northern Ireland is judged by the gestures it makes to the ‘hurting’ communities rather than by its policies or vision or, indeed, its legitimacy." (Brendan O’Neill, "Pat Finucane wasn’t the only victim of collusion", Spiked online, 13 December 2012)
The fact that it is the British state which determines the parameters on how to deal with the past has the following implication:
"They suggest that we start the exploration of the past on the understanding that the laws of the State decide who was in the right and who in the wrong through a conflict over the very legitimacy of that State." (Malachi O'Doherty, "No shortcuts to an agreed past," Belfast Telegraph, 4 July 2014)
The result of this is that in Northern Ireland not every murder is treated the same:
Everyone in the UK has heard of Jean McConville. She was a mother of ten, abducted and murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1972 (accused of being an informer). It is a case used to highlight the inhumanity of the IRA. But who is Joan Connolly? She was a mother of eight shot by the Parachute Regiment in the unprovoked killing of 11 civilians in Ballymurphy in West Belfast in 1971. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland has refused an enquiry into these murders. Justice for these two mothers is not equal.” (John Brewer (2015), In Northern Ireland Not Every Murder is Treated the Same.
How to deal with the 'past' is made on terms ultimately dictated by the British state and is not built on justice or truth.
This article has argued that the current victim, therapy and inquiry cultures enables the British state to reassert, in therapeutic terms, its governance of Northern Ireland. But it also stresses the alarming extent to which since 1998 in Northern Ireland therapeutic politics have usurped politics proper. As Chris Gilligan concluded in his study of conflict-related trauma policy in Northern Ireland:
In order to rebuild a society torn by conflict a more ambitious and active vision is needed, one which looks to the future and what people can do to bring about this future.
It is worth comparing the BBC programme mentioned above and contemporary victims and therapy culture to Marcel Ophuls' 1972 film A Sense of Loss which was made in a very different context. Filmed in Belfast in the winter of 1971-1972 this documentary film is thematically organised around the idea of human loss. Ophuls interviews Mr. and Mrs Nichol, young Protestant parents who still listen for the cries of their baby burned to death in a bomb attack on Balmoral Furnishing Company on 11 December 1971. Mrs Lavery describes her husband who has killed by a bomb which exploded as he attempted to carry it out of his bar on the Lisburn Road on 21 December 1971. A grandmother Ophuls interviews sees the spirit of her son, IRA volunteer Gerard McDade killed in Ardoyne also on 21 December 1971, in her newborn grandson. The film ends with the story of a teenage girl who was accidentally killed by a British Army armoured car on her way home from a dance. Her mother states that the Army never contacted her about her daughter's death. Instead of placing the ideas presented in the film within a historical context, Ophuls stated that he structured the film around the experience of death, with each episode highlighting the death of a particular person. The film was more an 'inner view' rather than an overview of the situation in Northern Ireland. While Ophuls' technique worked in his highly acclaimed, 1969 documentary, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), because the issues of the Nazi Occupation were already clear to the audience of the 1970s, the New York Times review criticized that Ophuls was "almost frivolous" to make A Sense of Loss without explaining the historical, economic and political antecedents of Ireland's problems. The film is interesting in the context of this article as it shows how people dealt with loss and trauma in 1971 was framed differently than today.