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1 May 2003 Edition

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Challenging "state-sanctioned forgetting"

Ardoyne: the Untold Truth, is a landmark moment in the unacknowledged war for the control of language and history, says FERN LANE

Ardoyne: the Untold Truth
Compiled by the Ardoyne Commemoration Project
Published by Colour Books Ltd, Dublin,

"I only cried for about a minute, no big major outburst of tears. I think it was shock.

Then a thing of hatred must have overtaken the pain. You just feel that hatred growing in you, just like a flower growing up from the field.

We just felt totally on our own.

We were lost for a very long time."

Terrorist. What a useful word that is. Its deployment as a political weapon allows governments to indulge in occupation, murder, disenfranchisement, discrimination and mendacity. It effectively shuts down public debate, corrupts the legal system from the police upwards and shields the criminal activities of the state from scrutiny. For over 30 years, the word has been used as an excuse for the British state and its agents to attack those who are, nominally at least, its own citizens, in the process denying many of them the most basic of human rights, the right to life.

"Before he died, his daddy had said to Michael that he had been shot. Then he said 'May God save you, son'. And God did save him. But his daddy was close to God.

I don't think John ever did hurt to anyone in his life."

In the British state lexicon, Ardoyne is a terrorist community, its inhabitants all equally guilty, any form of resistance emanating from it terrorism. Since 1969, 99 of its people have been killed, mostly by the RUC, B-Specials, the British Army and loyalists. Most were unarmed and most were Catholics, the two ingredients which, as Seamus Deane observes, "best stimulate the appetite of these organisations for murder and torture."

"When the British Army came in, what they said went.

Whatever they did was the law and they got away with it."

In 1997, the newly-installed Labour government devised something called the Victims' Commission and, with a casual disregard for the sensitivities of the nationalist community which would have done credit to their Tory predecessors, installed Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a long-serving senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, and Adam Ingram, then in post as the British Minister for Armed Forces, to run it.

Yet no matter how insensitive these appointments may have been, they were nevertheless carefully thought out and actually represented little more than a strategic move in the neverending propaganda war. The setting up of the Commission and the installation of Bloomfield and Ingram ensured that the government could simultaneously present itself as sensitive to the needs of victims whilst maintaining a strict control of the victims issue and thus determine who was to be considered more deserving of acknowledgement and sympathy.

The system of deciding who is to be granted the status of worthy victim has, of course, never been formalised but the hierarchy, through the legal system and via public discourse, is nevertheless strictly defined.

We all know how this hierarchy works, but it is perhaps worth rehearsing again. This conflict's dead fall into five discrete groups. At the very top are those whose lives are deemed to be infinitely precious; British civilians killed on the 'mainland', British soldiers, British Army horses. This class of victim is endlessly memorialised by the British press, their families lauded and given unimpeded access to the media, government and other powerful institutions. The horses even get statues.

Then come those whose deaths and whose grieving families were, like those above, useful at the time for propaganda purposes but who, unlike those above, are otherwise unimportant and who were soon forgotten by the mainstream; Protestant civilians, RUC members, UDR reservists, Catholic civilians killed by the IRA.

Next are loyalist paramilitaries, willing, expendable stooges of a state which encouraged their vainglorious delusions whilst using them as cannon fodder and which disowned them when they had fulfilled their function.

After that come those whose deaths were greeted with public approval and often undisguised exultation by government and media; Sinn Féin activists and IRA Volunteers, whether killed on active service or simply executed. These deaths provided an opportunity for the British Army to bake celebratory RIP cakes complete with the name of the victim, and for the state to try and persuade itself and the British public that it was able to defeat the IRA.

Finally, we come to those whose lives were considered so unimportant that the state could simply ignore their murders, impugn them, protect and exonerate the perpetrators and belittle their families' attempts to achieve justice. This group consists of Catholics killed by loyalists, Catholics killed by the RUC, Catholics killed by the British Army. And right at the bottom of this last category are murdered Catholics from areas labelled as 'terrorist communities'.

These Catholics, it was implied, were never innocent, not really. As members of designated terrorist communities they were, at the very least, guilty by association and even if they weren't, well so what? Who cares? There was no public outrage to contend with, certainly not on the 'mainland', no media campaigns, no awkward questions to answer, little legal recourse.

"They didn't only kill John; they killed my mother and my brother. They wrecked our whole family, that is what they did."

Ardoyne: the Untold Truth is a landmark moment in the unacknowledged war for the control of language and history. Its creators began with a simple premise; that the people of Ardoyne should be given the opportunity tell their story in their own words, reject the labelling and the hierarchy of victimhood which had been imposed upon them, reclaim their history and tell the world that their loved ones should not be forever defined purely by the manner of their deaths.

Its objective, through the medium of some 300 personal testimonies, was to prevent history "from being lost, rewritten or misrepresented" and to challenge "state-sanctioned forgetting". The result, after four years of painstaking work is, as Seamus Deane says in his eloquent preface, "an instance of what the truth looks like".

The book is also a testament to the historical resilience and growing confidence of the people of Ardoyne. It is unflinching in both its analysis of the political context and in its examination of who was responsible for each death. No one has been excluded. Many of the testimonies bear witness, as the authors point out, to the brutality of a system "that treated ordinary people with utter contempt and colluded to ensure lack of disclosure, accountability and justice".

"The soldier who actually shot him wrote a letter to my mother. It stated that he was basically fed up with getting hit with bits of bricks and he just decided to shoot somebody.

My mother is a very forgiving person. But she didn't. She just said 'No, he can rot in hell'. She just couldn't forgive him. I was very, very surprised at my mother saying that."

In any circumstances, grief is a complex emotion and its outworkings unpredictable; in the circumstances of Ardoyne, that intricacy can only be deepened. One of the project's great achievements is that it has given this complexity of feeling its full and proper expression.

The care and sensitivity of the interviewers has allowed the families of the dead to escape from the sometimes claustrophobic embrace of the externally defined notion of "victim". Those who have given testimonies have been given the freedom, often with the most poignant lyricism, to be lost, broken, angry, bitter, vengeful, bewildered, resigned, forgiving, defiant. Indeed, many of them have been many of these things in the years since their loved ones were killed.

They can be so certain in the knowledge that they have the unconditional support of their community and in the realisation that this community has survived everything that has been inflicted upon it. It is, after all, that very ability to resist that has so infuriated the British state. British prime ministers have come and gone - and will continue to come and go - but Ardoyne endures.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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