In the fourth essay in our series on the legacy imbalance scandal, CANON IAN ELLIS says that for him the key moral issue is that of the definition of a victim — a fundamental building block in any process dealing with the past (see links at the bottom of this article for other essays in the series):
The current government consultation on the administration of legacy issues in relation the Northern Ireland Troubles is, to put it mildly, quite complicated.
For a start, the reader will find a whole array of acronyms – HIU, ICIR, OHA, IRG, amongst many others that may be more familiar.
Most people do know what PSNI stands for, but what about its LIB?
Moreover, behind each acronym, standing for both established and proposed structures, are processes and concepts that are far from straightforward.
It does take considerable mental discipline to hold them all together in one’s thought processes, which is actually essential because the various structures and institutions are inextricably interrelated.
Reading through the material, one could be forgiven for asking oneself whether one is really seeing the full meaning and implications of each proposal, and of the combined working of the various bodies.
Complexity, of course, is sometimes necessary.
Any legal document can be extremely challenging to understand, but the dangers in complexity include misunderstanding and not being able, with the best will in the world, to see the full picture.
As I approach the legacy issue, I do so with a moral, as opposed to a party political, interest.
The key moral issue for me is that of the definition of a victim — a fundamental building block in any process dealing with legacy matters.
The 2006 Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order, in its definition of a victim of the Troubles, does not distinguish between people who were acting lawfully and those who were acting unlawfully, thereby allowing a moral equivalence to be perceived.
However, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the term ‘victim’.
A perpetrator of an attack who is injured or killed by his or her own bomb is a victim of his/her own action, but another member of the public who happens to be at the same place and is injured or killed, as well as being a victim of the action, is a victim of the perpetrator’s intention.
There is an immense moral difference.
To ignore that difference is to give grounds for serious moral offence.
Intention is a fundamental issue when making moral choices.
Where any question is involved or debatable issue is at stake, while a person who considers himself or herself to be doing the right thing and to have a right intention, the exercise of conscience requires that thought be given to what other responsible people think.
In the course of the Troubles, there is no doubt what a whole array of responsible people thought about the unlawful taking up of arms by paramilitaries of any section of the community.
The overwhelming view among the British and Irish governments, politicians, civic society leaders and church leaders was clear – that, despite undoubted failings by government, violence was not morally justified in the Northern Ireland situation.
In light of the imminent arrival of Pope Francis in Ireland, it is salutary to recall what the last Pope to visit, John Paul II, said in Drogheda in 1979, referring to those who had espoused violence: “I appeal to you, in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.”
Who can question the integrity and depth of feeling of such words?
Even if all the other words of church leaders, expressing the same view, were silenced, those words of John Paul were, and remain, enough to make the moral point.
While referencing the Roman Catholic Church, it is relevant to recall that its current Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Eamon Martin, said in 2014, while addressing Ballymena Borough Church Members’ Forum: “We should not be afraid to question the creeping narrative that ‘we are all equally to blame’ [for what happened in the past] and to challenge any attempts to ‘revise’ or ‘control’ the narrative about the past.
“The vast majority of citizens across this island and on all sides of the community rejected paramilitary violence.”
The fact that the statutory definition of a victim was not challenged in the 2009 report of the Consultative Group on the Past (‘Eames-Bradley’) was one crucial factor that led to its recommendations not being implemented.
However, as was reported in this newspaper (1st January last), Lord Eames, a former Church of Ireland Primate, reiterated to me in an interview last winter that he was “unhappy with the statutory definition of a victim” — a view he had expressed to me several years previously while I was editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette.
As reported at the time in the Gazette, he told me in 2014 that, “despite the difficulties in drafting”, the distinction between those who were engaged in lawful activity and those who were engaged in unlawful activity should be made, and he revealed that he had “argued the point with politicians frequently” and had discussed drafting problems, including those around the term ‘victim’, with civil servants.
Perhaps on a somewhat lighter note, but still to make a point, at this time of year there are many visitors to these shores.
Despite our reputation for not always having the best of weather, people come for many reasons, including our historic places, the natural beauty to be found in every county, and our good humour.
Approaching any of the airports across this island, the green fields, gentle hills and abundance of lakes and rivers are to be seen below and there is surely in many minds a sense of how all this beauty is contradicted by the violence and brutality that has marred our reputation across the globe.
Perhaps, by still coming in their thousands, our visitors are expressing a hope that our better nature will prevail.
May it be so.
• Canon Ian Ellis was editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette from 2001 until last year
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