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20 December 2001 Edition

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Holy Cross and the victim discourse

This article arose out of a number of responses to An Phoblacht's coverage of the Holy Cross blockade. While most people responded positively and clearly found it easy to identify with the way in which the story was presented, a small group objected on a number of grounds. One particular complaint worried me more than most.
The persistent portrayal of northern nationalists as 'victims' was demoralising and counter-productive, it was suggested. Where were the stories of a vibrant nationalist community engaging in struggle to improve their lives? Where were the success stories?

In writing about Holy Cross and the wider context of North Belfast I had mobilised all sorts of victim imagery, from persecution to pogrom, in what I believed to be a truthful representation of the facts. But just what was I doing and why?


In his study of America's Holocaust discourse, Peter Novick uses the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs' notion of collective memory as chosen rather than imposed.

"Instead of viewing collective memory as the past working its will on the present, Halbwachs explores the ways in which present concerns determine what of the past we remember and how we remember it."

In his exploration, Novick identifies a central theme around a notion of the victim and attempts to understand the consequences of this to both Jewish America's understanding of itself and wider American culture.

It's a compelling read, which deserves attention in its own right, but within a more general context Novick identifies a growth in 'victim culture' within which different groups compete for recognition and primacy.

"There has been a change in the attitude towards victimhood from a status all but universally shunned and despised to one often eagerly embraced."

Novick argues that the cultural icon of the strong silent hero has been replaced by the vulnerable and verbose. "Stoicism is replaced as a prime value by sensitivity. Instead of enduring in silence, one lets it all hang out."

It's a phenomenon that Harvard historian Charles Maier claims has reduced modern American politics to a "competition for enshrining grievances" in which "every group claims its share of public honour and public funds by pressing disabilities and injustices".

Of course, in the North of Ireland we have our own particular brand of victim discourse, with its own very specific state- and institution-sponsored dynamic. The centrality of this discourse has been acknowledged in various ways.

The Good Friday Agreement asserts: "It is essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation." Prior to the Agreement, British NIO civil servant Kenneth Bloomfield was tasked "to look at ways to recognise the pain and suffering felt by the victims of violence".

The Bloomfield report of 1997 led to the establishment of a Victims Liaison Unit headed by NIO security minister Adam Ingram, superseded by the current Victims Unit under the auspices of the offices of the First Minister.

Within the new fluidity engendered by the peace process, the issue of victims, past and present, appeared to offer the promise of a new dispensation in which real political change would take place amidst an honest recognition of outstanding grievances. Acknowledgement as a corollary to change has long been established as central to conflict resolution.

But despite a transformation in the political landscape, the British state, through its institutions in Britain and in the north of Ireland, has persistently sought to maintain control of the discourse by retaining pre-conflict resolution conceptualisations.

During 30 years of overt conflict, the British have successfully sustained a hierarchy in which victims of state violence or state-sponsored violence were marginalised and often criminalized. People who suffered at the hands of the state or pro-state forces were often deemed 'unworthy' 'undeserving' and 'culpable' in their own victimisation.

Since the imposition of partition, northern nationalists have suffered victimisation within and through a whole range of indices and mechanisms, including social and economic discrimination, sectarian violence and intimidation, British military, loyalist paramilitary and judicial repression.

Yet throughout this period, the defining factor within the prevailing victim discourse remained republican violence. Only those who suffered as a result of armed opposition to the state could be classified as the 'real victims'. Only this specific group could seek acknowledgement and redress.

The onset of the current peace process and the IRA cessation removed this factor but there has been little commensurate transformation within the discourse, which continues to promote a unionist and British agenda.

The imposition of this agenda upon the victim discourse has a specific impact upon the northern nationalist community. The overwhelming majority (88%) of victims of state killings have been nationalists. An even greater majority of victims of Crown force collusion with loyalist death squads (state killing by proxy) have also been members of the nationalist community.

The accumulative impact of the prevailing negative discourse attached to the victims of state and pro-state violence holds a wider significance within the community to which it is most often attached.

Within the media, a key agency within which the discourse has been negotiated, this translates into hostile reporting, in which the victim's newsworthiness largely rests on his or her demonstrable culpability, and disinterest.

Where culpability cannot be reasonably sustained, a kind of fatalistic inevitability is attached to the incident. Nationalist victims of loyalist sectarian violence are often described as "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Such a conceptualisation offers little hope of justice. It demands no intervention. It replaces outrage with resignation.

It is against this backdrop that the loyalist blockade of Catholic Holy Cross Primary School took place this year. There has been a long and ignoble history of sporadic sectarian harassment and intimidation of Catholic schoolchildren where the journey to school takes them outside the Catholic ghetto.

Every year in West Belfast there is a scramble for limited school places within the relatively safe environment of the largest nationalist area in Belfast. Catholic children who fall outside this safety net are often allocated places where vulnerability to sectarian intimidation and attack is a reality endured throughout school life.

In North Belfast, the geography of 'cheek by jowl' nationalist and loyalist housing estates leaves many pupils particularly vulnerable. As a former pupil of Holy Cross, the current Irish President, Mary McAleese, recalls often taking a hurl to school to afford a measure of self-preservation.

Indeed, the present Holy Cross school is only situated in a predominantly loyalist area because the original Catholic primary school was destroyed in a sectarian arson attack. At the time, the local Protestant clergy condemned the attack and offered land to rebuild Holy Cross in Glenbryn.

However, two factors distinguished this year's intimidation of Holy Cross children from the more general sporadic sectarianism encountered in journeys to and from school. The duration of sustained intimidation reminiscent of Harryville, where loyalists harassed worshipers outside a Catholic chapel for months, was one factor.

Orchestration was the second. Internecine loyalist feuding in the Shankill had brought displaced UDA members into the formally UVF-controlled Glenbryn. Amidst the ensuing paramilitary rivalry, a campaign of anti-Catholic sectarianism, including the blockade of Holy Cross, acted as recruiting sergeant for the UDA.

By mid-summer in North Belfast, 2001 had already been a year of unrelenting loyalist intimidation, with almost nightly sectarian attacks, including hundreds of pipe and petrol bombings of Catholic homes.

In June, with the Orange marching season already well under way, there was an incident in which a parent collecting a pupil objected to UDA flags being erected outside Holy Cross school. Glenbryn protestors would later cite this as initiating the blockade.

Parents and children arrived to walk the short distance along Ardoyne Avenue to Holy Cross to find their way barred by the RUC. In a response reminiscent of RUC tactics during Drumcree roadway blockades, at the behest of a handful of loyalist protestors the RUC cordoned off the area. The children were unable to go to school for over a week.

The beginning of the blockade coincided with the ending of the school term and the summer eight-week break, during which parents were hopeful of reaching an accommodation with local Glenbryn residents that would allow the children to return to school after the holiday unmolested.

But by September, the only change lay in the tactics of the RUC. Under pressure not to appear to act as loyalist blockaders by proxy, the RUC decided to grant passage to parents and pupils walking to Holy Cross but remained ambiguous about guaranteeing safety.

Rather than hold loyalist blockaders at a distance, the RUC allowed the protestors literally within spitting distance of the children and their parents. The rest is history.

In 'Running the Gauntlet', I described the first day of the new school year. It was a day in which children, many as young as four and five, had wept and screamed in bewilderment and fear as loyalists hurled their particular brand of hate. "Scum, scum, scum," the mob had chanted. Catholic parents had been told to "get that Fenian bastard out of here".

Pelted with stones, bottles and fireworks, the children arrived at Holy Cross hysterical and too afraid to stay. A teacher described a child cowering in a corner and others hiding under desks as the mob outside continued to lay siege at the school gates.

Parish priest Fr Aidan Troy, who had accompanied parents and children on the route to the school, described the journey as "beyond my worst nightmare. I have been in many troubled areas in the world," said Fr. Troy. "In 30 years of being a priest I have never seen anything like this."

By the second day, Crown force tactics changed, with hundreds of heavily armed, mostly masked, RUC officers in full riot gear joined by British soldiers carrying semi-automatic rifles and prepared for combat lining the route.

For nationalists, given the history of the state and the role of state forces, relying on Crown force 'protection' can afford little in the way of reassurance. Holy Cross pupils and parents faced a double burden of walking the gauntlet of loyalist hatred through a corridor of British military hardware.

To add to the anguish, the RUC and British Army decided that only parents and pupils would be allowed to walk the 300-yard stretch along the Ardoyne Road to Holy Cross school.

The ordeal was not only being faced by some of the most vulnerable and defenceless members of the nationalist community; they were also forced into facing it alone.

Cut off from their own neighbourhood, parents and pupils became totally dependent for their protection upon the discredited RUC and a hostile army of occupation. And then the situation deteriorated even further.

As parents and children made their way along the Ardoyne Road on the third day of term, loyalists gathered at a junction within the Glenbryn estate threw a pipe bomb, packed with shrapnel.

Falling just a few feet short of its intended target, the bomb exploded, injuring four RUC officers. A mother screamed, "Oh God! Oh God!" and ran, dragging her terrified child away from the junction. Other mothers and their children cried out and ran for their lives.

Fr Troy, placing himself between the loyalist mob and the children's pathway, tried to calm traumatised parents now terrified for the safety of their children. The scene was one of hysteria and panic. "This is carnage," said Fr Troy. "It is beyond belief."

Inside the school grounds, teachers tried to comfort pupils and parents. "This is attempted murder," one tearful mother said. "They tried to murder babies and the mothers of babies today."

In the weeks that followed, Glenbryn protestors subjected parents and pupils of Holy Cross to vile verbal abuse, both sexual and sectarian, physical assault, including bombardment with bottles, bricks, fireworks and balloons filled with urine or dog excrement.

Holy Cross children and parents also endured humiliation and ridicule, with loyalists cavorting in carnival masks and other tomfoolery. Loyalist mockery, which included wearing facemasks of the British queen and USA President George Bush, took an even more sinister turn when protestors sported home made masks of loyalist killer Johnny Adair.

On other occasions, loyalists carried placards making lewd sexual accusations targeting Catholic priest Fr Troy. On another occasion, loyalists taunted mothers walking their children to school with cries of "this is what Fenian whores get up to", while brandishing pornographic posters.

Set against this very real exercise in sectarian persecution, loyalist protestors, some unionist politicians, the British media and various other agencies attempted to redefine what was happening.

Drawing upon well-established perceptions within the dominant victim discourse, we were called upon to empathise with the 'grievances' of the Glenbryn protestors while distancing ourselves from the trauma of the children by vilifying their parents.

In an article, 'The lies behind the truth'‚ I attempted to show how closely media commentators mirrored positions taken by the loyalist protestors and their supporters and the contradictions that imposed on their presentation of events.

On the first morning of the new term, as Catholic mothers escorted their children through a barrage of stones, bottles, fireworks and sectarian hatred, loyalists had labelled them "whores" because "only sluts would drag their children through this".

The overt abuse was discarded but the theme was adopted with enthusiasm by the media. Repeatedly, the mothers of pupils walking to Holy Cross School were hauled up before the cameras for their status as 'fit' parents to be questioned.

Even the undoubted trauma inflicted by loyalists upon children, some little more than babies, was utilised as a stick to beat their parents with.

"Keep the kids out of the frontline," insisted 'straight talking' Lynda Gilby of the Sunday Life. "Will you ever forget them? Those flower like faces, pale and frozen in fear. Or contorted with terror as they walked, were dragged or half carried through a corridor of vile, spitting venom.

"Understandable, perhaps, to take your little girl through that on day one, when you didn't know what quite to expect. But to put her through the horror a second, a third and a fourth time?" Gilby continued.

"How could anyone subject their precious, vulnerable child to the likes of that just to prove a point? In my book they have been subjected to child abuse-from both sides."

In her column, Gilby merely repeated the less sophisticated but similar analysis offered by imprisoned loyalist killer Johnny Adair, who was afforded headline news on the front page.

Entitled "COOL IT!" the 'exclusive' told us that Adair had ordered UDA 'terror bosses' to 'STAY OUT' of the Holy Cross crisis. Unfortunately, the dramatic headline and use of the upper case was somewhat undermined when Adair admitted, "I can't speak for the UDA."

But never mind; on one point at least the interview was consistent with the newspaper's line. "I have to say the parents are responsible," said Adair. "I wouldn't bring my four- or five-year-old children up through a gauntlet of hate. As much as people would lay the blame on the loyalists, the parents were responsible." Adair's words were left unchallenged.

Another myth designed to discredit parents as wilful architects of their own misfortune was that simple rerouting could solve the problem of getting Holy Cross children to school. Despite the fact that there was no viable or safe alternative route, the media spent hours discussing it.

In the words of Belfast's Newsletter, "it is natural that parents should be offended by the idea that they cannot take their children to school by their 'traditional route' but as people in other situations have discovered, traditional routes count for very little in Northern Ireland".

Having evoked their grievances over Drumcree, the editorial continued: "There is a means by which the children could attend the school without having to endure scenes for which no young mind could be properly prepared. Surely their peace of mind is more important than any point of principle?"

The final myth peddled by loyalists and repeated by the media was that, despite the fact that they were being targeted, this was not a protest against Catholic schoolchildren. We had all misunderstood.

The blockade had taken place "because residents in a loyalist enclave could find no other way of attracting attention", suggested the Newsletter. "It is a shame that they felt compelled to use such objectionable tactics," to highlight "their plight as an isolated, victimised and forgotten community".

And now we really knew how to interpret those scenes of violent confrontation, with full-grown loyalist men and women hurling sectarian hatred at tear-stained and terrified Catholic schoolgirls and their mothers.

We were being instructed to ignore the evidence of our own eyes and refocus our understanding into accepting the baying loyalist mob as the real victims. In this looking glass vision, the despicable behaviour of the Glenbryn protestors was just a measure of their desperation.

But while the British media could be relied upon to reiterate such nonsense, film footage of the Holy Cross blockade had captured a much wider audience and the international media attached quite a different meaning to the images.

British journalists continued to evoke the classic 'two tribes' model within whose well-worn tracks both sides were at least equally blameworthy, but once exposed to an international audience, the story inevitably careered off the rails.

And the scenes had been heartbreaking. As news broadcasters flashed the images across the world, they were watched by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. The display of naked hatred they witnessed onscreen exposed a power relation just as it had in Alabama decades ago.

This temporary fracture within the dominant victim discourse did not just represent an ideological breakthrough. There were immediate consequences within the concrete world, not least the dispatch of a US government envoy to the north of Ireland (Tragically, events of September 11 intervened).

International pressure to resolve the situation was also accompanied by individual support from high profile political figures, such as former American First Lady Senator Hilary Clinton, South African anti-Apartheid campaigner Bishop Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King.

But perhaps for northern nationalists, most significant was the recognition of their plight by Elizabeth Eckford. Photographed in 1957 as a young black student walking to a school through protesting white segregationists, the image became one of the defining icons of Black America's struggle for civil rights.

As we all approach the New Year, an uneasy calm has descended upon Holy Cross. The loyalist suspension of the blockade resulted in a measure of peace for children and parents, but there remains no guarantee of a permanent end to the trauma.

The blockade was lifted not because the loyalists of Glenbryn came to realise the sectarian persecution of school children was wrong. It did not end because condemnation by the British (or indeed Irish) establishment forced loyalists to concede. It was merely a temporary resolution on condition that Glenbryn 'grievances' would be addressed.

The right for Catholic children and their parents to walk to school free from sectarian harassment remains the gift of loyalist paramilitaries, to be withdrawn as they see fit.

At the beginning of the suspension, loyalist spokesperson Jim Potts warned that the blockade might be reinstated. "If the government does not fulfil its obligations we will go back to protest," he warned.

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