Why has the debate over the ‘victims’
of the Troubles proved so divisive?
paramilitaries and their families the status of victims would legitimise the armed struggle, putinto question the legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland and accept that a certaindegree of state violence (for which justice would have to be done) was inflicted. What is evenworse is that it would undermine the status of those who were victims of IRA violence andmake their deaths seem useless or insignificant. Understandably, this is unacceptable to mostProtestants (and also for many non-republican Catholics), yet it is at the same time
undeniable that there have also been victims of loyalist paramilitaries’ actions and instances
of abuses and crimes being committed by the security forces, mainly the RUC and the BritishArmy.In
many cases, even when ‘illegitimate’ victims have had their victimhoodacknowledged, ‘hierarchies of victimhood’ have been created
by Protestants and morelegitimacy is been claimed for victims on their side, and more compensation demanded fortheir loss.
Disagreements over what constitutes victimhood,
and a ‘we
effect with its consequent competition for legitimacy and acknowledgement, are the mostvisible divisions which the debate over victimhood in Northern Ireland has prompted.Nevertheless, they are only the tip of the iceberg.The debate over victims in Northern Ireland has only exposed in a new manner or
with new terminology major divisions that were already present in the Province’s society and
along which rifts between the two major social groups have run for centuries. Divisionsbetween Catholics and Protestants have developed two parallel cultural identities over time,which serve to uphold these same divisions and which, as it will be argued below, are formedand maintained through opposition to each other. These identities are constructed by theconglomeration of a myriad of factors which in many cases form a vicious circle. Forexample, it could be argued that in addition to the obvious religious divide, segregationbetween Protestants and Catholics in the place of work leads to segregation in areas of residence, which leads to segregation in family ties, which leads to segregation in schoolingand so on; and that overall, these parallel lives of the two communities create parallel
identities. Nonetheless, once the two identities were ‘set up’, so to speak, what has
maintained them has been mainly the central role individual and communal memories of thepast have always played in Northern Irish communities. The continuous recourse to pastevents, from the Siege of Derry or the Easter Rising to the Battle of the Bogside, the Hunger
Strikes or the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike is obvious and one only has to look at the
republican and loyalist parades or the murals in Belfast and Derry to get a full sense of it.
Moreover, while division is created by the remembrance of specific historical eventswhich may be favourable to one of the sides in the conflict, the division many times
Lundy and McGovern (2007), p.56, Donnan and Simpson (2007), p.22.
Graham and Whelan (2007), p.484, McBride, (2001), p.15, Dawson (2005).