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.

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