Victims of Northern Ireland conflicts feel they are treated the same as perpetrators
by Caitlin J. Curley
When Ann Travers was 14 years old, her sister Mary was shot dead in the streets by a member of the Irish Republican Army.
Three decades later, while Ann was campaigning for justice for her murdered sister, one of those implicated in the murder was working as a special adviser to a government minister.
“She was able to move on with her life while Mary wasn’t even able to start her life,” Ann said. “My mom’s taxes were being paid to her daughter’s murderer.”
Ann’s sister was one of the many victims of conflicts in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, which stretched on for decades and left the country with thousands dead and injured.
When Northern Ireland found peace, so did many of the perpetrators of these attacks. Former paramilitaries are now on the streets living normal lives alongside the people they affected, due to the agreement that ended the Troubles.
At the start of the 1900s, after being governed by Britain for centuries, many in Ireland began to campaign for independence. However, most of the population in the north eastern counties of Ireland was from Britain and wanted to maintain the union.
In 1920, to solve the issue, the British divided Ireland into two countries – the southern part as the Irish Free State, later a republic, and the north as a part of the United Kingdom. The northern population was split between unionists, who wanted to maintain the union, and a nationalist minority who wanted a united Ireland.
In the 1960s, the nationalist community created a campaign for civil rights. Tensions grew between nationalists and unionists, and several groups formed that wanted to use violence to achieve their goals, which were either to assert a demand for a united Ireland or to defend the union.
A small part of the nationalist community began to use violence to break Northern Ireland free from Britain, and became known as republicans. A part of the unionist community also took up a violent campaign to defend the British ties, and became known as loyalists. Within the republicans, the Irish Republican Army was formed, and within the loyalists, the Ulster Defense Association was created.
Ann Travers, born at the start these Troubles, was one of many thousands of young Irish people who grew up never knowing peace.
For years, the two militant groups carried out shootings, bombings and other violence that touched countless families in Northern Ireland. 3,500 were killed, and thousands were injured or imprisoned.
In 1998, the Irish and British governments, as well as most political parties in the country, came together to create the Good Friday Agreement, which called for peace throughout the country. The agreement established a new system of government and required violent groups to cease their armed campaigns.
Full peace wasn’t reached until the IRA laid down its guns in 2005.
One of the most controversial parts of the Good Friday Agreement was that it granted early release to many prisoners who had committed war-related crimes, leaving them to rejoin society, and in some cases become politicians to the people they had directly affected.
Victims share their stories
When Cheryl Patton was 14, her family received a phone call from her father’s secretary, screaming that he had been shot. Her father worked for a locally recruited British army regiment called the Ulster Defense Regiment. Cheryl’s family ran outside and Cheryl saw her father bleeding to death in the arms of his secretary.
Over the next 10 years of the Troubles, Cheryl’s family was threatened, petrol bombed, intimidated, and shot at. Her mother was regularly threatened and told that her children would be killed.
A man was charged and acquitted of her father’s murder. He is now working as a politician. Cheryl, like many in her position, was not persuaded of his innocence by the court’s ruling.
“I’d love to shout out the terrorist’s name. I run into him occasionally,” Cheryl said. “He doesn’t know me, but I know him, and it destroys a piece of me each time I see him laughing and joking and acting the respectable gentleman.”
Sharing the memory was painful for Cheryl. The burden of grief haunts victims every day, especially when they are reminded of those who committed crimes against them.
Some victims have lost more than one member of their family. In Alan Irwin’s case, his father and uncle were both members of the UDR. His uncle was shot on his way to work in 1979. His father was shot at work in 1986. Both were killed.
The rest of Alan’s life has been affected by the violence. He has trouble trusting anyone, and struggles with anger toward the system that he says failed him.
“As a member of a family who has lived with the impact of terrorism, the trauma, the immeasurable grief, loss and pain, has destroyed family units, demolished trust and left many to live in a vacuum, reliving those events as if they only just happened,” Alan said.
Victims and Perpetrators treated the same?
As a result of the Good Friday Agreement, former bombers and shooters are now free and living as taxi drivers, store owners, spouses and parents, living as neighbors to those who knew their victims.
“Their atrocities are just forgotten – wiped out – where they’re still very real for the family and others,” said Alan Irwin. “You haven’t been able to process and you haven’t been able to file it away because you’ve been denied justice -you’re denied so many things. Nobody’s prepared to accept that what they did was wrong.”
In many ways, perpetrators of violence during the Troubles are now treated the same as victims of the violence. This has left those like Ann, Cheryl, and Alan, feeling a lack of justice.
“There can be no equivalence with the perpetrator who commits acts of terrorism and the innocent victims he or she makes,” Alan said. “I’m angry that people are not expected to stand up and give account of what they have done in this life and the harm that they’ve caused to all of the families that they have destroyed.”
The grief and trauma has left scars in these survivors that are reopened regularly.
“The release of the prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement … the lack of a decent conviction time on anyone charged after the GFA – these make life completely unbearable at times,” Cheryl said.
In recent years, there have been some changes in the treatment of past offenders, including a change spurred by Ann Travers, who was able to find some justice in her case.
Mary McArdle was convicted for the murder of Mary Travers, because she carried the guns to the men who shot Ann’s father and sister. She went on, in peacetime, to work as an adviser to the culture minister in the Northern Ireland Executive.
It was campaigning against this by Ann Travers that led to the creation of ‘Ann’s Law’, barring former prisoners from such work. Thanks to this law, a former convict will never again work as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Executive.
This law was seen as an injustice by former activists in the Troubles, and several prisoners groups continue to campaign for equal employment prospects, stating that it is already difficult for former convicts to find work.
Moving on from the conflict
According to Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United, there are many things that could be done to ease the pain for victims of the Troubles.
Primarily, the Northern Ireland Executive could stop treating perpetrators of violence the same as the people they made victims of by changing the legal definition of victim/survivor.That legal definition currently covers all those who have suffered during the troubles, whether or not they were activists. According to Donaldson, this definition retrospectively legitimizes terrorism.
Donaldson said that the criminal justice system also needs to stop “placating terrorists and thwarting victims’ efforts at attaining justice, truth and accountability,” provide funding, pensions and other resources for victims as well as prioritize them as a special interest group.
Terrorism and violence need to be delegitimized rather than glorified throughout the country, according to Donaldson.
“What’s needed (is) a commitment from government that terrorism will never again be placated or appeased and that everything will be done to prevent what has happened in ‘the past’ from ever being repeated,” Donaldson said.
Many victims, like Ann Travers, also believe that the violence needs to be further condemned in order to never be repeated.
“Throughout this journey, I’ve spoken to so many families who have been hurt, by republicans, loyalists and the state, and I realize we all are exactly the same,” Ann said. “All of us are deeply hurt, we all deeply love our loved ones who were murdered or hurt. They were fathers, they were brothers, they were sisters, they were mothers, and they were people who were very special to us who didn’t deserve to be shot down in the street and who certainly don’t deserve for their murders to be justified.”
Divided by religion
Integrating Catholics and Protestants in Irish schools
by Caitlin J. Curley
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, many children grow up in Catholic or Protestant neighborhoods, which are walled off from each other. Most are enrolled in either Catholic or Protestant schools. On many streets, houses are either decorated with a British flag, signaling Protestant, or an Irish flag, signaling Catholic.
This segregation has existed in Northern Ireland for centuries, and recent years haven’t showed signs of change. There are more walls dividing neighborhoods now then there were 20 years ago.
A movement in Northern Ireland created in 1984 has since been attempting to bring Protestant and Catholic children together in schools and educate them in the same classrooms.
“Dividing children by religion at the start of their schooldays is madness,” said Brian Small with the Integrated Education Fund. “After that division it is well nigh impossible to unite children in later life. I believe parents who want an integrated education for their children have a right to that choice.”
Currently, there are 62 integrated schools in N.I, with a total of 21,956 pupils, which is 7 percent of total pupils in Academic year 2014/15.
Jake Proctor, a former head boy of Strangford Integrated College, spoke at the Irish Parliament in July as part of a Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education delegation in order to gain public and financial support while pushing the Department of Education to integrate schools.
“How can we justify having a segregated system of education in a divided society, emerging from a conflict in the 21st century?” Proctor said. “Our children are our future – the first generation of potentially “new” politics in Northern Ireland … we need to give them a good start.”
The next step for integrating education in Northern Ireland is to get the Department of Education to publicly and financially support the movement, Proctor said.
Not everyone thinks that integrating education will bring the religions together.
“It will not provide a solution,” said Rev. Lesley Carroll. “Why would we expect our children to do what we adults can’t do when they will go home to the same atmosphere, an unchanged atmosphere, and find themselves in difficulty?”
Anne Harris raised her son in integrated schools, and says that although she supports integrated education, she is not sure it will be the end-all solution.
“I am skeptical of claims that integrated education will ‘cure’ Northern Ireland society, as I am afraid that it may be a simplistic solution when the fault lines run so much deeper,” Harris said.
Harris said that while her son was in an integrated school, he went to a friend’s house in a Loyalist area beside the peace wall. That evening, the friend said they were going out to ‘play’ and started chucking stones across the peace wall, which was reciprocated from the other side.
“The whole experience taught me that, even though the children were integrating during the day, there is a mindset still in the province that makes people retreat to their own ghetto,” Harris said.
Proctor acknowledged the continuing divide between the two sides.
“Tensions from The Troubles, from the Good Friday Agreement, and from both sides of the community divide do exist today,” Proctor said. “The tensions and problems derive from both history and politics today, but I believe the only way we are going to end these tensions once and for all is to continue educating children together.”
The movement has not been supported by many parents in Northern Ireland.
“Trying to change a nearly 100 year old system which involves mistrust and suspicion and division, is a huge and often times unpopular effort,” Small said. “So I salute the pragmatism and courage of all the parents who have brought the movement to its current 22,000 children.”
Harris said that the movement needs to be more widespread, and it by itself will not fix the religious segregation in Northern Ireland.
“Integrated education is just one brick in reconstructing this society but much more needs to be done to make each ‘side’ see that the vast majority of people are just like themselves – wanting to live peacefully and bring up their children to the best of their ability,” Harris said.