Voice, Agency and Responsibility in Northern Ireland

A light sandwich lunch will be served from 12:45pm.

For many scholars and activists in the post-conflict field, ‘helping victims’ is often invoked as the key rationale for the establishment of truth commissions, reparations, prosecutions, forms of memorialization and other transitional justice mechanisms. Responding to the complexity of the victim-perpetrator axis is part of this process. Yet, post-conflict, defining who is a victim or combatant is inherently complex and often expressly politicized. Monochromatic understandings of ‘innocent’ victims and ‘wicked’ perpetrators are frequently mapped onto contested understandings of who is the ‘blame’ for past violence. This paper will critically explore the construction and meaning of victimhood in post-conflict Northern Ireland. There, discussions on victimhood have been sharply polarized by debates over ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ victims and the creation of a ‘hierarchy’ of victimhood. Reflecting competing moral claims to legitimacy and justification for past actions, the power to define who is a victim of the conflict is integrally related to political claims-making and the reproduction of what Benedict Anderson (2006) termed ‘imagined’ political communities. Focusing on the five overlapping themes of (1) Victimhood, Innocence and Blame; (2) Victimhood, Agency and Imagining Legitimacy; (3) Victimhood, Agency and the Mobilization of Empathy; (4) Victimhood, Voice and Discomfort; and (5) Victimhood, Voice and (Political) Responsibility, this paper will assess how competing interpretations of victimhood have mapped onto and influenced discussions on how best to deal with the legacy of the past. Based on sustained qualitative fieldwork with members and representatives of the victims’ sector, ex-prisoner and ex-combatant groups and other relevant stakeholders in Northern Ireland, the conclusions are of relevance to both Northern Ireland and other transitional jurisdictions more broadly.