Monday, 14 May 2018

Victims and the Media - Instruments or Players?

I was asked to speak to a conference in Queen's University, Belfast on Monday on the subject of victimhood and the media.  This is my speech.

The theme of my talk today is centred on the relationship between victims of the Troubles and the media in Northern Ireland; and whether or not victims are instruments of the media or players with the media.  As a direct victim of the conflict, I will give some examples which I hope will illuminate my own personal experience of this sometimes-fraught relationship.

Now one might ask what I mean by victims and what I mean by the media.  As anyone with any common sense will know, it would be foolish to try to bundle these two groups together as homogenous packages.  The victims and the media are made up of people of all shapes and sizes.  With different identities. Different political perspectives. Different ideologies. And most importantly, they are people with different experiences or even no experience of the conflict.

This can shape their world view. It can shape their thinking about the conflict.  About who they are as victims and who they are as journalists or presenters. 

The Media

When it comes to the media we have many different people in a variety of roles.  This can be in print media, on radio talk shows, on the TV news or current affairs programming.  They will have different parameters within which to work.  They may be constrained by their editors as to what they work on in any given day.  They may be pressured, externally, or even self-censor, to ignore certain topics or to vigorously pursue others depending on the particular political stance of their organisation.  They may be instructed that they have to provide a balance between different narratives.  They may have different styles of questioning and reporting. They may be restricted by the amount of time they can give to the story.

All of this makes the media environment a difficult place for the people working within it, especially when they are dealing with matters relating to our conflict.  It is within this public sphere where much of the battles of the past are being played out today, especially by some of our politicians.  The media are also players in this battle of narratives.  They will claim to be neutral, above the politics, just there to hear the stories and re-present them to their audience. 

But this is impossible.  We are all biased in some way or another. We are all constructed by the society we live in. All shaped by our experiences of the world.  All affected by the conflict in some shape or form.  This is normal.  We are only human.

Now, while the majority of our media representatives are reflexive, self-critical, and conscious of their biases and limitations, there is a tendency for some to engage in what is called conflict journalism. Conflict journalism, for me, is highlighted by a fixation on what divides us rather than what could unite us.  Highlighting difference and avoiding similarities.  It is characterised by a constant focus on the zero-sum scenarios that have ravaged our body politic for decades.


It is within this style of journalism that I feel that victims become instruments of these conflict journalists.  Where victims are used as a means to an end: to further advance the narrative battle. The meta-conflict: the conflict about the conflict.  Where the suffering of the so-called innocent victims, the heroes and martyrs, is highlighted for the purpose of showing how heinous the terrorists, the perpetrators, the monsters and villains, were.  Conflict journalism also tends to sensationalise the suffering of the victims as helpless souls in need of pity. 

As an example, I would like to you back to an episode of Nolan Live from June 2015.  The main topic that evening was concerned with the issue of a pension for those who were injured during the Troubles. As many of you will know, I am part of the Wave Injured Group who have been campaigning for this since 2011 and I was on the show that evening.  This invitation followed a BBC Spotlight programme from the previous evening which looked into the issue. 

Being a pre-recorded 30-minute format, Spotlight has the time and space to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of this campaign, and of the people involved.  We as a group were delighted with the end product.  We had been treated very sensitively by the production team. Our voices were heard and so were those who had concerns about the implications of the campaign: which could include provision for severely injured non-state actors. 

The next morning, I was invited onto the Nolan radio show.  The host that day was Enda McClafferty.  It was a measured interview.  I was given time and space to engage with the arguments and to have a constructive dialogue with the other guests.  I was left with a feeling that I had been listened to and heard. 

Later that day the call came to appear on the TV version. Along with my colleagues, I made my way to the studio, took my front row seat and got miked up, ready to go.  As the theme music died down so began the toxic battle of narratives. The obligatory Sinn Fein talking head versus the DUP one, with the host interrupting every ten seconds in his inimitable style. 

Then he came to me. As I attempted to give my reply, to add some nuance to the complexity of the conflicted society I was born into, to move away from the black and white, the good and evil, I was promptly interrupted and asked to talk about my own suffering. To describe my injuries, to describe my pain, to describe my life as a helpless victim.  I had not come there to do this: but under the studio lights and with the cameras looking on I reluctantly complied.  Once complete, I attempted to move onto more comfortable ground, but most of my token “two minutes” were used up by this stage. 

Onto the next victim and more of the same.  A young woman who was severely burned in the Omagh Bomb was asked about her experience of suffering. At the same time, the big screen displayed a stock image of a “terrorist”, placed alongside a graphic picture of Donna Marie, and the question was put to the audience: are they the same? 

The simple answer is: there is no simple answer.  But that was not the point.  The point was to show the extremes.  The evil wrongdoer beside the pure and innocent victim.  It was not about exploring the context or the nature of the conflict.  Such stark imagery was used to highlight the differences and to avoid the human similarities.  To keep a clear dividing line between the two.  The worthwhile issue of the pension and what it could do to help the survivors, was lost.

In the end I left feeling as though our campaign had been pushed back.  The sympathetic line taken by the Spotlight programme had been tarnished by the toxicity of the Nolan Show.  We felt that we had been used as instruments, to create a toxic debate in the studio that evening.  We had hoped that our issue would have been taken on by the host on its own merits: much in the same way that he champions other worthwhile cases, such as frail elderly people being ejected from their nursing homes. 

It is within this sphere that this presenter is at his best.  He listens to the case and empathises with the person in front of him.  His voice softens and his tone is more in tune with his weekend Radio 5 Live persona.  He fights the corner for these helpless victims of state bureaucracy, by giving them a loud voice: instructing his production team to make behind the scenes phone-calls on their behalf; sometimes resulting in satisfaction for the injured party.

This is not the case when it comes to many victims of the conflict.  These cases are not taken on their individual merits.  The injustice felt by individuals and families cannot be seen in its own light.  There must always be a contradictory voice in the studio: to provide balance when in many cases no balance is needed.  It would be safe to assume that there are no behind the scenes calls made to resolve these issues.

But maybe I am being too hard on the Nolan Show.  They are not the only ones I would view purveyors of conflict journalism.  Our daily newspapers are filled with this style of reportage. Highlighting the negatives rather than the potential for transformation.

And maybe I am also being unfair to Stephen Nolan as a journalist.  His fixation on the suffering of the victims may actually be a useful way to attract the sympathy of the public to a specific issue.  This is something that we as a group have learned during the course of our campaign.  This is where we became players with the media. 


To bring forward our campaign we knew that we had to enter the political arena. We would need to gain political support. We would have to play the game. We would need to gain the support of the public.  We would need to gain sympathy.  We would need to bring forward the human story in order for people to empathise with us.  In order to be seen as deserving of support.

We would need to use the media to frame our campaign in a way that would garner support.  We knew from very early on in the campaign the importance of imagery.  We consciously decided to put the wheelchair users front and centre of any media pictures. 

We understood how powerful the image of a woman, blinded by a no warning bomb, pushing her friend’s wheelchair, who lost her legs in a similar explosion, would be. Our amputees have been more than willing to pull off their trousers and remove their prosthetic limbs when needed. We have been open to telling the stories of how we were visited by the horrors of the past, of how we still suffer today, and how many of us fear the future.  This can be viewed by some as degrading.

Now this type of engagement is counter-intuitive to many of us as victims and survivors.  We don’t want to be seen as the helpless victims begging for support.  We want to be able to get on with our lives and grow. But because our government, at Westminster and the old Assembly, failed to provide us with the necessary support we had no other choice.  

We need to bare all, in order to be heard.  We need to shame and embarrass the powers that be to do something.  Otherwise we stay invisible, marginalised and ignored.  We are forced to keep going to the media, year on year, to let people know we are still here. Waiting.

And in this environment, the media have been willing to play along.  They have responded to the vast majority of our press releases.  Some have been printed in the papers.  Others have come along to our homes.  Set up their cameras and given us our two-minute slots on the evening news.  They have spoken to us down the line on the morning news shows.  At the moment we are still ‘newsworthy’.  But this cannot last forever.  Maybe they will get bored of our story.  What then for the campaign?


To conclude, I need to be generous to our fellow citizens in the media.  While I may have had some experiences that left a bad taste in the mouth, the majority have been positive and useful.  We have learned from past lessons that some formats are better than others when it comes to discussing such sensitive issues.  Journalists, like us, the victims and survivors, should always be willing to learn.  They may try to be objective, balanced, and detached but they cannot escape the reality that they too have been shaped by the same society that shaped us.  

All we ask is that they continue to try to treat us with dignity and respect, to be cognisant of what happened to us in the past, and to be sensitive with our stories.  But we would also ask that they too become campaigners against injustice. They have a major part to play in transforming the peace. They should take on the tough stories and help highlight what people are going through. But they should do this with a forward-looking focus, to help find a resolution, not as a way to fight the old battles. The should aim to be peace journalists.

On a note of caution, I believe that as a society we should not give carte blanche to victims and survivors and pander to all of their demands. Victims should not be put on high pedestals, free from criticism or scrutiny.  All we ask is that should we be held to the same standards as anybody else.  We are players - but we are players in our own right and should not be used as instruments. If our demands are right and just then that should be the reason for granting them. We are still ordinary citizens but with different needs. Who want to be seen as valued members of society. Visible, listened to, and respected. No more, no less.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Injured Victims of the Troubles: Excluded and forgotten, again.


I was injured in 1994. I was only 21. Four UDA gunmen entered our family home in Lenadoon, a nationalist housing estate in West Belfast, lying in wait for a neighbour. We were held hostage for an hour.  When the neighbour didn’t turn up they emptied a machine gun into me instead. I was shot six times in our living room, in front of my mother, father, brother, and sister.  I was hit in my arm, my lung, my spleen, my femur and my spine.  I was paralysed in an instant and now get around in a wheelchair.  I live in chronic pain and suffer from constant infections, which only last year led to the loss of a kidney.  Life is not easy. 


But my story could be repeated many times and in many ways.  That is how I came to be involved in the WAVE Injured Group.  I met people there from across the community who had been injured in shootings and bombings.  People who were paralysed, blinded and had their limbs ripped from their bodies.  At 45, I am one of the youngest out there with these types of injuries.  There are people who were injured before I was born. They are now in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They have been campaigning for an Injured Pension since 2011.  They are still waiting.


Most severely injured people, when they emerged from their comas, were left to struggle with long periods of rehabilitation in hospital. People came out to find that they had lost their jobs, their businesses, and their homes, as they couldn’t pay the mortgage. Many faced a bleak future, living in poverty, destined to live a life on benefits. Many now live in fear of the onslaught of welfare cuts.

There was no Disability Discrimination Act in place back then.  Many did not and could not return to work.  We built no pension, we could not afford to save. Many were left on the unemployment scrapheap.  Along with the stigma of being disabled, crippled, and the problems and obstacles that brings, we also had to contend with “Troubles Stigma”.  Even if you were injured as an random member of the public, people cast judgement on you.  “No smoke without fire” is a common prejudice; or “You must have been a bad boy, to have that done to you”. Victims are still blamed for their fate.


The confrontational legal system insulted many of us with derisory compensation packages that were based on invalid assumptions about our life expectancy. Some were told that they would only live for ten or twenty years.  One of our colleagues, who was 17 at the time, was told that she would not see her 33rd birthday; she is now approaching 60.  Nobody expected us to survive for so long. Yet, survive we have, only to be faced with lifelong psychological, emotional and physical pain, on a daily basis. Medical science kept us alive, and for longer, but as we age our conditions get worse. 


In no way would a pension compensate us for our years of suffering, but it could go some way to allowing us to cover the costs of old age and the additional expenses incurred as a result of our specific injuries, for example, disability aids. Or even to pay for carers to look after us instead of inevitably spending our dying days in nursing homes. Some have even said that they would love to be able to buy treats for their grandchildren. It would give us back some dignity and show us that society cares about us.

All of the research and groundwork has been completed, the pension has been costed and it is ready to be implemented. Cost is not the issue.  It is projected that a pension would cost £3m per annum. It is totally feasible.  We are not asking for a lavish salary. It only works out about £150 a week for approximately 500 people.


The point should be made that, because of the efforts of the WAVE Injured Group, the provision of a pension for the severely injured was part of the Stormont House Agreement (para. 28). Yet we have been told that the pension will not form part of the proposed legacy consultation.  We find this deeply shameful and insulting.  How can such an important issue which will make a real and tangible difference to the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society be ignored? 

While we will not get involved in the arguments around the merits of a proposed statute of limitations, we do take issue that something that was not agreed in the Stormont House Agreement has been put into the consultation, yet the pension is dropped. 


The new Secretary of State told Parliament, only a week ago, that the Government has responsibilities to ‘…provide better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who suffered most during the Troubles’.  Is she saying that the severely injured are not her responsibility?

Are we being told, in effect, that people like Jennifer, who had both legs torn off by the IRA in the Abercorn bomb in 1972, when she was 21, is not someone who ‘…suffered most during the Troubles’

And Peter, who has been in a wheelchair since 1979, when he was 26, after he was shot by loyalists when they were looking for someone else and whose father dropped dead from a heart attack when Peter was being carried to the ambulance, is not someone who has ‘…suffered most during the Troubles’, as far as the Secretary of State is concerned.

Or Margaret, who was blinded in an instant when an IRA bomb blew the windows of her office into her face and body, in 1982, and who still has glass working its way to the surface, 36 years later, is not someone who has ‘… suffered most during the Troubles’, according to the NIO.

Not only are the severely injured among those who have ‘… suffered most’, we still suffer and will continue to suffer every day until we die.


We have been told by the NIO, that the pension issue is a devolved matter; to be dealt with by the local assembly.  There is no local assembly. This position is untenable. We are in legislative limbo.

The Injured Group has been campaigning for over seven years to get legislation through the Assembly but while all local parties support the idea of a pension for people like those in the Injured Group, the fact remains that they have been unable to come to an agreement on who would qualify.  They have kicked this particular political football into touch and refuse to deal with it. Such issues should not be left to this place.

We do not see this as a devolved matter, a welfare matter, a social security anomaly.  This is a legacy issue, plain and simple.  The severely injured people of the Troubles are THE physical manifestation of this legacy.  We should be treated as such.  The mechanism that provides the pension may be eventually devolved to an NI Department, but the concept of a pension is a legacy matter.  Instead we are ignored. Marginalised. Excluded. Forgotten.

We should be part of the Stormont House Agreement as agreed by the two governments and the five main parties.  They all have a responsibility.  The UK Government (NIO) should be launching their consultation into the SHA mechanisms soon. We ask this that the Injured Pension be put into the consultation, to let the public examine it, and to see it implemented once and for all.  We call on the government to legislate for this pension.  This government should live up to its responsibilities as a so-called modern democracy and look after this group of forgotten people, before it is too late. Four members of our group have died since we started our campaign.  How many more will die before this is implemented?


The government is signed up to a range of international agreements at the UN which set out the obligations for states to look after victims of conflict; to provide redress, to repair harms.  They are based on human rights.  We are human beings who were left for dead. Inches, minutes away from death.  But we survived. We deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. This should have been done for us already.  We should not be made to beg for this.  We should not have to come onto the media to plead our case.  Or to lobby our politicians. We should not have had to do all the research. To do all the legwork.  This is the responsibility of the British government.  This all happened on their watch.  It is high time they did something about it. It is shameful and morally indefensible that the Government turns its back on us.


This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.  In the main, it stopped the killing machine.  It brought about political structures.  It created a new type of society.  It gave hope.  I voted for it. I knew that the likes of Johnny Adair, who was convicted of directing terrorism, of which my shooting was a part of, would be released after two years.  I could stomach that for peace.  That was a price I paid. I gave up justice for peace.  But we expect something in return from our society. We expect social solidarity and social justice. The Agreement stated that they would look after the victims. They said that it was “essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation”.  They have yet to do this for the injured. They have been excluded and forgotten, again.  

Thursday, 11 January 2018

First, Do No Harm: Playing Political Football With Victims and Survivors

Now that Twitter has replaced politics in Northern Ireland, as one political commentator has noted, it is no wonder that what now passes for political debate has reached new levels of toxicity. The Twittersphere has been running on hyperdrive this past week as the latest ‘political’ row over Kingsmills, in particular, and victims, in general, emerged.  Whatever the arguments around the motivations for Barry McElduff’s crass video, the outcome was that people were offended and disgusted. The MP for West Tyrone has since pleaded his innocence, accepted his “punishment”, and apologised; an apology that has been rejected by many of the people at whom it was directed.  One could easily label some of the reactions from our politicians as faux outrage, but it cannot take away the fact that those who were most affected by the slaughter at Kingsmills, on that cold early January night, back in 1976, felt it hard.  

I feel a certain, yet distant, connection to the victims and survivors of Kingsmills and to the relatives of the Reavey and O’Dowd families who suffered so much in that short window of time.  I, myself, was seriously injured in a gun attack on the 6th of January which left me paralysed and living in constant pain. The turn of every new year is a reminder of the week to come.  I don’t sit at home and count down the days and minutes like Alan Black, the sole survivor of Kingsmills, has recounted, but it’s always there, in the back of my mind. Furthermore, I’m sure it’s there in the back of my parent’s and sibling’s minds, who were also there, in our living room, to witness the shooting and its aftermath.  All victims feel it more, the sense of loss, on the anniversaries.  This is why it’s important to be conscious of their feelings at “their” time of the year.

This was one of the reasons why I decided to intervene on Twitter to ask South Belfast MLA, Christopher Stalford, to remove his tweet which featured a “satirical” cartoon depicting the aftermath of the Kingsmills massacre.  The picture showed a representation of the red minibus that carried the workmen, riddled with bullet holes, with ten streams of blood, representing the lost souls, flowing from the back doors onto the country lane.  

While I am the type of person who is not easily offended or disgusted, this macabre image shocked me to the core.  It immediately made me think of Peter Gibson, a man I have never met, but who, on the new BBC documentary series “Survivors”, spoke of how he had had to wash away the pool of blood in his dead father’s driveway, after his murder by the IRA in 1993.  It brought my mind back to a place where I imagined how my family would have had to dispose of the blood-soaked settee I had been sitting on, when UFF gunmen decided I would be their first victim of 1994.  

The cartoon, as explained by the artist, Brian John Spencer, was intended to be a satirical comment on the Barry McElduff controversy alongside the oft-cited Sinn Fein “red-lines”, supposedly placed on the never-ending merry-go-round of political negotiations at Stormont.  He claimed that he “never intended to cause any hurt” and that his thoughts were “with the Kingsmills families”.  But, what if the picture did cause harm?  What if he caused hurt to the Kingsmills families, or anyone else who has been traumatised by their experiences? 

The artist has made it clear that he has no regrets.  The point of the piece was to make a political point.  To criticise the Sinn Fein position. And he takes solace in the fact that the vast majority of responses he received, from Unionists, were positive.  The political point was the message that was picked up and conveyed by Mr Stalford, when he added the tag line, “Sinn Fein: offended by everything and ashamed of nothing.”  The political point had to be made first and foremost.  The grotesque and macabre nature of the image was secondary.  Calls on Mr Stalford, to take down the image, fell on deaf ears.  He would not be dictated to by the Sinn Fein Twitter mob.  All who objected to his post were lumped into a neat category: themmuns.

In my eyes, these calls were not, as some have suggested, intended to censor the image or to censor the artist, but instead to recognise the potential to cause harm.  This should be the first thought in the mind of anyone who puts up a post on any media platform. Political representatives should know this better than anyone.  They should be more responsible.  They should not be weaponising victims and survivors for their own party-political ends.

For too long have victims and survivors been used as political footballs.  They get kicked around until they are threadbare and deflated; leaving the match to peter out to a bruising no-score draw; the sorry ball kicked into the stand.  Then, when it suits the political players, a little bit of air is pumped back into it: game on for another 90 minutes. 

This is how the political football season goes, year on year.  Many of our politicians are seasoned professionals.  Some bag themselves lucrative transfers to the up and coming teams: instinctively knowing when to jump ship.  They have no issue play on a wet Wednesday night in Fermanagh.  They play to and are cheered on by their loyal ultras who revel in getting one over on their old rivals.  Every tactic, every pass, every attack is decided upon in the changing rooms before the match.  It’s all about building up a good cup run before the big-two final showdown: Election Day.  The key is a solid defence; especially against your closest rivals, your own side.  Keep risky plays to a minimum.  This is something Mr Stalford knows all too well.

When I last asked him and his party colleagues to take a risk, which could make a real and tangible difference to a significant number of severely injured victims, the response was telling.  The occasion was, fittingly, the final session of business of the Stormont Assembly (25th January 2017) before it closed for another election.  I was there with a delegation from the WAVE Trauma Centre giving evidence to the Committee for the Executive Office on the Pension for the Injured.  I asked Mr Stalford if he would be willing to support a pension for all severely injured victims, even those who were involved with paramilitary organisations.  On a personal level, I would consider the implementation of an all-inclusive pension, one that does not exclude anyone, even those who pulled the trigger on me, to be a gesture of true and meaningful grace and reconciliation for our society.   Mr Stalford was clearly of a mind to disagree:

This is where we, victims and survivors, and society in general, find ourselves.  Caught between the ballot box and the ballot box.  Many of our politicians, not all, think in terms of election cycles.  Long term thinking, that could bring a modicum of dignity to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, is worthy of a red card in the Cup Final.  Own goals count as double.  The best form of defence is attack.  Play to the ultras.  Keep them singing in the stands.  Keep them buying the season tickets even though their team never seems to really win.  Season after season.

There must be another way forward.  I would tend to agree with Barney Rowan who has, for a long time,suggested that we take the issues that affect victims and survivors out of the hands of our elected politicians.  Election after election makes it difficult for them to take the hard decisions; to look at their base and be honest with them; to do the right thing and suffer the consequences at the polls. I personally believe that Mr Stalford and his colleagues would not face the same fate that befell the man, to whom so many profess their faith.  Was he not the one who proclaimed: Blessed are the peacemakers?  The same man who asked his followers to turn the other cheek.  Who healed the cripple.  Maybe if these politicians sat back and realised that they have a responsibility to make this society a better place by first, doing no harm. Maybe.

But then again, maybe I am being too hard on our politicians.  They are after all, human beings like the rest of us.  Caught up in the legacy of our many years of conflict and violence.  Hurt and traumatised individuals who lash out against those who harmed our tribe.  Steeped in the bigotry and sectarianism that has permeated our society for generations.  We are all, if we are truly honest with ourselves, in some ways, and at certain times, guilty of feeding into the toxicity.  We try our best but the mask slips now and again.  

We should not be too hard on ourselves though.  We must strive to keep a lid on it and not let it seep into future generations.  It is only through love and empathy that we can do this.  We must try to walk in the shoes of our neighbours.  Try to imagine what it feels like to be the son of somebody killed at Kingsmills. To be the mother of a young girl shot in the head by a plastic bullet.  To be the wife of a man dumped at the border.  To be the carer of somebody who had their legs and arms ripped from their bodies while they sat down for a coffee one Saturday afternoon in spring 1972.  This is how we begin to consider living with ourselves: as human beings: not as them and us.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A funny thing (and a few not so funny things) happened on the way to the Forum

And so begins another part of my journey as a victim/survivor of our most recent conflict. I have been selected to become a member of the Victims and Survivors Forum as part of a group of ten new members who will join the existing forum of thirteen people who, in turn, will stand down next year. This outgoing group of thirteen will be replaced by an additional group of new members in April 2017.

The Forum is made up of individual victims and survivors from across the region: those who have been bereaved; injured; as well as those who care for the injured. The main function of the Forum is to provide victims and survivors with an opportunity to put forward their views, which should feed into policy, on the plethora of issues facing victims in particular, and society in general, as we ‘deal’ with the ongoing legacy of the Troubles.  

This Forum could not and should not purport to speak for ALL victims but, as a group, which is broadly representative of the population of those who were victimised, we do have an important part to play in tackling the issues; which, so far, have held up the recovery process.  Collectively, we should try to come to some sort of agreement on what can be done to repair our society; and to make sure it never happens again.

This concept of ‘Never Again’ is a recurring theme among those who have been most affected by conflict; both here and around the world.  For me it comes from a sense that I have witnessed the dark side of humanity, at first hand, and I would not wish this upon anyone else: even upon those who perpetrated it. Breaking the cycle of violence, recrimination and revenge starts with people like me.  When we call for no more recrimination, for a better way, our voices seem to be heard.  We become 'moral beacons' who can shine a light on the issues and show a way forward. We should grasp this mantle with both hands and take the rest of our fractured society forward with us.  We must never go back.

Although I sit on my wheelchair in 2016, with all the baggage of someone who was born in 1972 and lived through the Troubles, who was injured in a sectarian gun attack in 1994, and has since embarked on a role in peacebuilding through the resolution of conflict issues, I enter this Forum with an open and honest heart.  I want to listen to those have a different experience of the conflict.  I want to understand their pain and their sense of loss.  As well as this, I want them to hear me too.  I want us all to be able to listen to each other.  To really listen.

I have my own personal views about how legacy issues could be resolved in a way that would benefit victims and survivors but this may not suit everyone.  I have met many other victims over the years, who would profoundly disagree with my views, but I have found that when I appeal to them on a purely human level, we can come to a common respectful understanding of the issues we face. 

One such issue that I know for sure will come up for discussion is the definition of a victim. It is a debate that may never be resolved. Some argue that people who were involved with paramilitarism or their families can never be classed as victims in the same breath as those who were not. This creates a hierarchy of victimhood where some victims are considered more superior than others.  For me, while I understand their concerns, I find this competition is wholly divisive.

This is not the Olympics, or for us cripples, the Paralympics, where we have a range of gold, silver and bronze medal winning victims. We don't need a hierarchy. We should maybe look at the issue through a more linear perspective - where we are all seen as victims and survivors in our own right but where we experience our victimhood at different ends of a spectrum.  There are those of us who may be moving towards the middle of this spectrum and those who wish to stay at the opposite ends.  This is fine. We don't have to be the same in terms of how we feel as victims.  Victimhood is tasted differently by different people at different times of our lives. Victimhood is not fixed.  It is not black and white: it’s a complex grey area.

I look forward to the coming debates.  I hope that the people who put themselves forward for the Forum come to table with a similar resolve to do their best for our society. This is not just about looking after the needs and desires of victims and survivors or, for that matter, certain sections of this group.  This is about attempting to tackle what has been a toxic issue which has dogged our political and social processes. I hope we can add to the work that has already been done by the outgoing Forum in a calm, positive and respectful way. I hope that the work we do in the future will help to heal our fractured society. I hope.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Transgenerational Trauma: A Northern Ireland Perspective


The child is born into a family which is the product of the operations of human beings already in this world.  It is a system mediated through sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, pain and pleasure, heat and cold, an ocean in which the child quickly learns to swim.
(R D Laing, 1971, p.11)

This essay will critically evaluate the mechanisms involved in the passing of trauma from parent to child using the various theories of the transmission of trauma: with a focus on the Northern Ireland perspective (concentrating on the impact of the ‘Troubles’); as well as international experiences (mainly, the long term effects of the Holocaust). 

Trauma, as a concept, is multicomplex and thus its impact can be experienced in various ways by individuals, by families, by communities, and by societies.  Summerfield (2000, p.232) posits that, ‘[t]here is no such thing as a universal response to highly stressful events’; while Douglass and Vogler (2003, p.10) assert that ‘[…] the pathogenic traumatic experience of one person is an interpretive construct that may not be shared in another, even in identical situations’. 

Herman (2001, p.33) characterises trauma as an affliction of the powerless in which the victim is rendered helpless by an overwhelming force: fundamentally altering the ‘systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning’.  Auerhahn and Laub (1998, p.22) describe how a ‘massive psychic trauma [can] shape the internal representations of reality’.  This is supported by Van der Kolk and McFarlane (1996, p.6) who state that, ‘[...] the core issue of trauma is reality’ and that the ‘meaning [attached] to the [trauma] is as fundamental as the trauma itself: leading to an inability to ‘integrate the reality’, resulting in a ‘repetitive replaying of the trauma’.  Douglass and Vogler (2003, p.42) summarised Freud’s speculation that in cases where the traumatic event is so extreme one does not in fact experience it - i.e. it is ‘not integrated mentally and emotionally into one’s sense of being’.

There may be positive effects after trauma, such as Post Traumatic Growth, but the majority of trauma literature focuses on the negative (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996).  This essay will concentrate on the negative effects and psychopathology of traumatic experiences and how these effects may potentially be ‘passed’ to the offspring of those who were initially affected (Weingarten, 2004, p.45).  There are multiple models put forward to explain transmission but due to space this essay will analyse the psychodynamic, sociocultural and family systems theories.

Research into the sequelae of the Holocaust brought the conceptual framework of Transgenerational Trauma (TGT) transmission to the fore.  Weingarten (2004, p.49) posits that the offspring of traumatised people act as witnesses to their parents experiences while stating that it is not the trauma itself that is passed, but ‘its impact’; or as Lev-Wiesel (2007, p.76) puts it: ‘its contagion’.  Herman (2001, p.2) states that, ‘[w]itnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma’.  The DSM-V-TR (American Psychological Association, 2013, p.271) criteria categorises repeated or extreme indirect exposure to ‘aversive details of the event[s] [as a stressor for PTSD diagnosis, usually in the course of professional duties]’This criterion omits offspring, begging the question: Why?  Why are children, who face similar exposure, around the clock, not considered to be affected in the same way as professionals?

Kellerman (2001, p.257), who concentrated on the long term effects of the Holocaust, presents an integrative model to demonstrate how trauma is transmitted and characterises the ‘process’ as a ‘functional relationship’.  This ‘content’ of this relationship can manifest itself in a way that has an adverse pathological effect on the offspring of survivors (Ibid., p.257).  The child is liable to experience problems with: (1) ‘Self’, which would impair ‘self-esteem’ and ‘identity’ development; (2) ‘Cognition’, promoting ‘[c]atastrophic expectancy and ‘stress upon exposure’ [to disturbing] ‘stimuli’; (3) ‘Affectivity’, ‘[a]nnihilation, anxiety, nightmares’ [and] ‘unresolved conflicts around anger complicated by guilt’; and (4) ‘Interpersonal functioning’, involving ‘[e]xaggerated family attachments and dependency or exaggerated independence’ [which may hamper] ‘intimate relationships and the ‘handling [of] interpersonal conflicts’ (Ibid., p.259).  McKenna (2015, p.40) postulates ‘that the children of victims are at an increased risk of experiencing toxic stress’: which has been defined by Shonkoff et al. (2009, p.360) as the ‘strong, frequent, and/or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response’.

Kellerman (2001) puts forward four major theoretical models for the transmission of TGT: Psychodynamic; Sociocultural; Family Systems; and Biological.  Downes et al. (2012, pp. 584-586), who researched families bereaved during the conflict in Northern Ireland, summarise similar approaches including: stress-vulnerability models (in which ‘increased vulnerability to develop psychopathology is [...] transmitted’ [emphasis in the original]); transmission of psychopathology (whereby ‘the parental trauma in itself is not transmitted, but rather that the parental psychopathology is the factor that influences the children’ [emphasis in the original]); genetic and physiological explanations (which posits that the stressor is ‘transmitted physiologically’ to the offspring); social psychological/parenting perspectives (which focuses on ‘social learning and effects on parenting’); psychodynamic theories (through transposition; overidentification; role reversal; and attachment problems); and family system approaches (with a focus on ‘particular interpersonal patterns present in families’).  Hanna et al. (2012) encapsulate a phenomenon of poor psychological functioning in children which may stem from the impact of trauma experienced by their caregivers, leading to a deficit in optimal interactions.

While some of these models may be discrete, others are more intertwined and connected.  Kellerman (2001) argues that any or all of the manifestations of trauma transmission can be determinants.  Weingarten (2004, p.49) echoes this line stating that ‘no mechanism alone is the answer to how trauma passes; none is incontrovertible; and none can be easily separated from the others’ [emphasis in the original].

The psychodynamic model of transmission, according to Kellerman (2001, p. 260), comes from the psychoanalytic tradition where ‘repressed, [unresolved], and insufficiently dealt with’ emotions within the primary victims are passed over to the next generation through unconscious ‘absorption’: which Hesse and Van IJzendoorn (1998, p.304) purport as having the potential to lead to ‘substantial alterations in consciousness’.  According to Volkan (1997, in Kellerman, 2001, p.260) the elder ‘unconsciously externalizes his traumatized self onto the developing child’s personality’: an influence that the child cannot repel; thus it becomes the child’s ‘task, [to] mourn, to reverse the humiliation [and shame]’ [emphasis added].  Lev-Wiesel (2007, p.90) also recognises this dynamic, in that, the 2nd generation were expected to repay a ‘debt […] for the suffering of the 1st generation [Holocaust survivors]’: it became their life’s ‘mission’.  A recent full page advertisement from a local victim-centred NGO in one of the main newspapers in Northern Ireland (The Irish News) echoes this mission mentality being placed upon subsequent generations, to perpetually seek truth and justice for human rights violations, by stating that, ‘[The UK] Government is waiting for us to die off but our families will not go away’ (News Letter, 2015).

Rowland-Klein and Dunlop’s (1997, p. 366-367) Holocaust research identifies this ‘intimate, intrapsychic, and unconscious’ process in the form of ‘projective identification’: in which the parents attempt to self-heal through the children, who reciprocate ‘despite the cost to themselves’; and ‘whereby the parent splits off the unwanted part of the self, which is projected into the child, and internalised by it; becoming [Kleinian] ‘containers’ for the parent [emphasis added].  DeGraaf (1998, in Downes et al., 2012, p. 585) describes a ’bad child’ within the parent being externalised through ‘anger, rage, sadness disappointment and grief onto their child’ [emphasis added].  Themes that arose in Rowland-Klein and Dunlop’s (1997, pp. 366-367) research included ‘overidentification’ and ‘re-enactment’ which involved the child placing itself in an analogous situation to the parent where they would try to find meaning and ‘share the suffering’, in a process of ‘introjection’ and ‘transposition’. 

Overidentification and overprotectiveness are evident when children display similar traits to the parents such as hypervigilance and a pervasive mistrust of others; in which the world is a dangerous place and the family is the only safe haven (Danieli, 1985).  Rowland-Klein and Dunlop, (1997, p.367) posit that this can compromise the child’s ‘own sense of security’.  This observation is corroborated by Black’s (2004, p.104) research into the children of police officers in Northern Ireland, in which ‘[the children] may develop anxiety regarding their parent’s or their own safety’.  The child becomes enmeshed in the reality of the parent in a ‘symbiotic’ relationship; boundaries are blurred; role reversal occurs (‘parental child [vs] adult child’); potentially leaving the child with problems around ‘separation’, ‘individuation’ and ‘autonomy’ (Freyberg, 1980, p.90; Rowland-Klein and Dunlop, 1997, p.366; Downes et al., 2012, p.593).  This type of relationship can be detrimental to both parent and child as they may become entwined in what Karpman (1968) has described as ‘The Drama Triangle’.

Kellerman (2001, p.261) shone a light on the ‘sociocultural and socialization models of transmission’ in which it is postulated that social norms and beliefs are passed down from ‘generation to generation’; whereby children ‘form their own images through their parents’ childrearing behaviour’.  This contrasts with psychodynamic theories of the unconscious to more direct and conscious learning.  In Holocaust literature, according to Kellerman (2001, p.261) survivor parents have been described as ‘inadequate’: as their extreme suffering was ‘assumed to create child-rearing problems around both attachment and detachment’.  Difficulties with attachment have been posited as a prominent conceptual framework for the transmission of TGT (Liotti, 1992; Bar-on et al., 1998; Kellerman, 2001; Downes et al., 2012; McKenna, 2015).  Attachment is a psychological model which describes the bonds and interactions between a young child and its primary caregiver and it is believed to be an important determinant of the child’s successful social and emotional development (Commission for Victims and Survivors, 2015, p.23).  Bowlby (1982) describes how we are born with a strong tendency to seek care, help, and comfort in times of danger or when suffering from physical or emotional stress.  Bar-on et al. (1998, p.318) assert that ‘[...] a primary function of attachment relationships is to serve as a source of security [...] in situations that induce fear or anxiety’.  Ideally, in an optimal relationship, the caregiver gives a positive response to the child: problems arise when a negative response is offered.  These problems may manifest in children as ‘disorganised’ or ‘insecure-ambivalent and preoccupied attachment strateg[ies]’, which could lead to an increased vulnerability to ‘dissociative disorders’ (Liotti, 1992, p.196; Bar-on et al., 1998, p.330).

McKenna (2015, p.37) asserts that ‘parental trauma exposures interfere with interaction patterns within families’.  Bar-on et al. (1998, p.319) postulate that ‘parents who are unable to monitor their discourse and thoughts [around traumatic experiences] appear to have children who show a lack of consistent attachment strategy’; adding that it is the ‘lack of successful coping, rather than the loss/trauma per se that contributed to this relation’.  Main and Hesse (1990, in Bar-on et al., 1998, p.320) propose that this ‘lack of resolution [...] is characterised by parental fear [...] perceived by the child as being either a frightened model or as directly frightening the child’; and that the attachment figure is ‘at once the source and the solution of the infant’s alarm, and this leads to a paradox of fright without solution’. 

McKenna (2015) posits that communication within families can be a detrimental determinant of TGT transmission.  McNally (2014, p.32) asserted that traumatic experiences could lead to the development of ‘unhealthy methods of communication’ within the family: ranging ‘from silence to intrusive attempts to discuss the events and imposing their interpretations [onto their children]’.  This type of communication can be either intentional or unintentional: verbal or non-verbal (McNally, 2014).  Bergman and Jucovy (1982) signal the importance of how the narrative of the trauma is relayed to children, in what spirit, or whether the information is used to educate or employed as a threat. 

Danieli (1985, p.298) highlights this ‘Conspiracy of Silence’ as a major factor in the transmission of TGT.  The problems with a frightening narrative explained above are seen in contrast to how silence around trauma can be even more insidious to the next generation.  Many of the families who survived trauma employed silence as a way of coping with their extreme experiences; and also to protect their children.  Their Holocaust experiences were too horrifying to recount; there were no words; they were dealing with feelings of shame and guilt; and at the same time their audience could not or would not listen to or believe them: which led to problems with intrapsychic integration and healing (Ibid.).  Nevertheless, many of their offspring ‘attested to the constant psychological presence of the Holocaust at home, verbally and nonverbally [and] reported having absorbed the omnipresent experience [...] through osmosis’ (Ibid., p.299). 

However, Bar-on et al., (1998, p.331) stress that the conspiracy of silence ‘cannot be total’.  The offspring may hear partial facts and use their imagination to complete the narrative which may result in a more pervasive interpretation; where the ‘made-up story may be even more frightening than the real one’ (Dekel and Goldblatt, 2008, p.285).  They are left with an emotional story without an actual narrative to make sense of it.  Bar-on (1995, in Bar-on et al., 1998, p.326) asserted that, ‘the “untold story” of the past was [transmitted] with greater intensity [...] than the “told” story’; and that the children became sensitive to their parents’ need to keep silent responding with a “double wall”: [t]he parents did not tell and the children did not ask’. 

Danieli (1985, pp.299-304) described four categories of post-Holocaust survivor families to give a sense of the systems they employed: (1) Victim families (characterised by a victim identity, pervasive depression, worry, mistrust, fear of the outside world, and symbiotic clinging); (2) Fighter families (characterised by an ‘intense drive to build and achieve’, mistrust, overinvolvement and overprotectiveness, contemptuous of dependency on others); (3) Numb families (characterised by ‘pervasive silence and depletion of all emotions’, role reversal, children grew up on their own and taught themselves how to live); an observation supported by Becker and Diaz (1998) who argue that such children had to mature rapidly in order to become protectors of their parents; and (4) Families of ‘those who made it’ (characterised by a ‘desire to make it big’, children were emotionally neglected, denial of impact of Holocaust).  All of these families have a commonality in that the past is ‘taboo, excluded from open discussion, [which] cannot then become [an integrated] history (Becker and Weyermann (2006, p.28).

Downes et al. (2012, pp.590-595) located this theme in their research of families affected by the NI conflict: whereby families hid ‘aspects of the traumatic experiences and engage[d] in cognitive and affective avoidance’; where the ‘unspoken’ was prevalent; and the children ‘invented [their] own explanations; a place where the ‘truth [was] dangerous’; where facts were ‘hidden but not hidden’; where the children attempted to ‘block out their feeling for fear of the consequences; upon which one child developed the ‘propensity to be the “good girl” [in] a conscious attempt to avoid causing her own mother any more stress’.  This echoes Dekel and Goldblatt’s (2008, p.285) observations where ‘sensitive subjects are avoided’ to prevent the intensification of stress. 

In conclusion, it becomes clear from the evidence that there is a case to be made for the existence of mechanisms which may pass trauma from one generation to the next; and in certain cases to subsequent unborn generations. However, they are not mutually exclusive and they may not always pass on pathological consequences.  There can be recovery; missions can be accomplished; and growth can occur. 

The main focus of this essay was concerned with transmission inside families however wider society and political responses can have a profound effect on traumatic sequelae (Becker, 2004; McNally, 2014).  From this comes a view that trauma is a biopsychosocial issue that should not be seen through a purely pathological diagnostic lens; ‘in which the basic focus is not so much on the symptoms […] but on the sequential development of the traumatic situation’ (Becker, 2004, p.6).  This point is echoed by McNally (2014) who argues that TGT should not be given a clear diagnostic criterion as this may steer any responses firmly in the direction of the medical model to the detriment of other treatment modalities, and of the individuals and families themselves.  Until the wider issues, that pervade societies affected by protracted conflict, violence, and trauma, are addressed the chances of seriously dealing with the long term legacy of traumatised families are diminished.


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