Ben Lowry: It is an extraordinary situation that former IRA chiefs can lecture victims

Northern Ireland's troubed past is a topic that I planned to avoid this week.
Martin McGuinness at the Commission for Victims and Survivors Conference this weekMartin McGuinness at the Commission for Victims and Survivors Conference this week
Martin McGuinness at the Commission for Victims and Survivors Conference this week

There are many other important things in the news such as the ongoing migrant crisis, which I saw up close in Lesbos and the Balkans last summer.

But NI’s past again has come roaring to the top of the news agenda.

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A row flared up this week involving the News Letter, when Queen’s University Professor John Brewer said that our report on the Martin McGuinness speech at a victims’ commissioner event was “conflict journalism”.

Our headline read ‘Victim slams ex-IRA chief’, a reference to comments by Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered at a Catholic church in 1984 by the IRA.

Professor Brewer points out that there are other ways to describe Mr McGuinness than ex-IRA boss. He also says there are a multiplicity of victims and that journalists should not just report the past but report the future.

He and I debated this on Radio Ulster last evening in a friendly way, and I bear him no ill will for his point.

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I do understand what he is saying and I do realise that banging on about the past can seem mean and angry.

Even among our mostly unionist readers, many of whom despair at the way the past is being presented and tackled, there is some fatigue with such reports.

But that is part of the problem, because Province-wide fatigue can lead to neglect of genuine grievances. It is why I reject Professor Brewer’s overall point and also his specific ones.

On the contrary, I believe that the centre ground in society, not just ‘unionists’, should get involved in countering how the past is being depicted to justify terror.

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On the specific points, Professor Brewer is right that there are other ways to describe Mr McGuinness than ex-IRA. In the same newspaper, Thursday, we described him as the Deputy First Minister in a story to accompany a cheerful picture alongside Arlene Foster at the opening of a £4.6 million Mencap facility.

There was no mention of his paramilitary past or his views in that article. It was our editorial assessment that it was not appropriate at that juncture and we have used many similar pictures previously (by doing so we are aware that it upsets those readers who consider it to be an abomination to depict ex-IRA people in a warm way).

But the front page victim story was radically different to the Mencap one. We were referring to Mr McGuinness in the context of him addressing a victims event, which greatly distressed some victims, where he (again) demanded full accountability of the UK state.

Not only was it appropriate for us to describe Mr McGuinness as an ex-IRA commander in that context, given the secretiveness (at best) or dishonesty (at worst) of ex-IRA members, it would have been a dereliction of our duty to our readers if we had ducked such sensitivities.

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There is a decreasing number of media outlets now that will classify the IRA campaign as having been terrorism, but we will remain one of them. The SF man’s presence at a victim event sparked a flurry of horrified letters, some of which we published.

With regard to Professor Brewer’s point that there is a multiplicity of victims that too is true. But relatives of the 2,100 people murdered by republican paramilitaries seem neglected now in comparison to victims of state violence, or alleged state failures, so we are not reluctant to keep giving them a voice.

As to Professor Brewer’s point about the need to report and explore the future constructively, the News Letter does that daily, from our support for integrated edcation to our enthusiastic coverage of the good things that happen in N.Ireland from Giro d’Italia to the coming British Open, to our extensive coverage of both sides of the Brexit debate.

But a distorted picture of the past is no minor matter.

Some republicans express fury each time I make the point that Britain patiently suppressed terror by adhering overwhelmingly to the rule of law, such as rarely shooting known and dedicated terrorists (men who were often freed by the courts).

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They seemingly will never accept that if Britain was even a fraction as ruthless as they pretend, very many of them would be long dead.

But the crucial aspect to this battle over history is the offspring of that quiet majority that repudiated the IRA – and I am not making a ‘nudge, nudge’ reference to Protestants. I am referring to every major group of people across this island, from northern nationalists to the Catholic church, all of whom repudiated the Provisionals.

Their children are now mostly hearing of the Troubles via reports of collusion and security force brutality.

Now we are in the extraordinary situation that Mr McGuinness can without embarrassment attend a victim event and lecture the audience about disclosure. Even the victim’s commissioner seems to agree that the state needs to disclose more.

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Far from this being conflict journalism, the plight of victims of terrorism is a case of neglected journalism.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor