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'Remembering': Victims, Survivors and Commemoration
Glossary of terms related to victims’ issues in Northern Ireland
compiled by Dr Sara McDowell and Dr Martin Melaugh (2007)



The following page contains a glossary of terms on the issue of victims. The brief definitions are designed to assist those people who are new to the topic as it relates to Northern Ireland. Other terms that will be of interest to users can be found in the main CAIN Glossary.

Readers should note that the definitions set out below have been written to reflect the debate that has occurred within Northern Ireland society on the issues surrounding victims, survivors and commemoration. The meaning of most of the terms is highly contested.


Definitions of terms


Combatants are people, groups or organisations who take part in armed conflict. The word combatant has become increasingly popular in post-conflict rhetoric as a term to describe members of the security forces and Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. The term is contested and, for example, some people from the unionist tradition would object to the inclusion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) within the label combatant. Some people from the republican tradition viewed Prison Officers as part of the security forces and thus as combatants.


To commemorate is to remember the past in the present. A commemoration can be either a ceremony or a service which marks the memory of someone or something or it can be a tangible physical site which represents the memory of someone or something. They are designed to celebrate achievement, recognise sacrifice and acknowledge loss. Often dictated and orchestrated by hegemonic groups such as national governments to promote shared heritages, commemorations are bound up in notions of identity and malleable to the needs of present day societies.

Disappeared, The

'The Disappeared' is a term used to describe the 15 people who were abducted and killed, mainly by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in Northern Ireland between 1972 and 1986. They are referred to as 'the Disappeared' as their bodies were secretly buried. As part of the peace process the IRA passed information on the location of six graves containing eight bodies to the Independent Commission for the Recovery of Victims' Remains. Work to identify the sites and recover the bodies began in late May 1999.

Legitimate Targets

A term that was initially used by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) to indicate those groups, organisations, etc, that could be attacked, and members killed, as part of the IRA's 'armed campaign'. The list of 'legitimate targets' included not only members of the British security forces (British Army, Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), RUC, etc.) but also civilians who worked for the security forces.


Like commemorations, memorials can be either intangible or tangible constructs. Material memorials might include monuments, buildings, windows, plaques, gardens, books or photographs while other forms of memorials encompass funds, scholarships and plays etc.


A monument is a physical and symbolic site which represents the memory of either someone or something.


A perpetrator is a person who commits a crime.


A victim is commonly thought of a person that suffers harm. Victims can command sympathy and are often devoid of blame or responsibility. In Northern Ireland the definition of victims is wide-ranging and the parameters of these definitions are subject to constant revision. The term victim is also highly contested within Northern Ireland. Some of the discussion on the issue of victims takes place without reference to any explanation of what is being referred to, or without reference to any definition of terms. Hence some people engaged in a debate on the issue can refer to victims and mean those killed, while others mean those who survived.

Official Definitions of Victims and Survivors

The Victims and Survivors (NI) Order 2006 was a Statutory Instrument written to facilitate the establishment of a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland. Part of the Order (section 3) defined victims and survivors as follows:
"3. —(1) In this Order references to "victim and survivor" are references to an individual appearing to the Commissioner to be any of the following—
(a) someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident;
(b) someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for an individual mentioned in paragraph (a); or
(c) someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (1), an individual may be psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of—
(a) witnessing a conflict-related incident or the consequences of such an incident; or
(b) providing medical or other emergency assistance to an individual in connection with a conflict-related incident."

The Bloomfield report (Bloomfield, 1998; para 2.13) defined victims as:
"the surviving injured and those who care for them, together with those close relatives who mourn their dead."

Both of these 'official' definitions refer to victims as survivors, as opposed to those who died as a result of the conflict.

Unofficial Terms Used to Describe Victims:

Forgotten Victims

This term has been used in connection with two categories of victims. It has been used by campaigning groups in the Republic of Ireland to refer to civilian victims of the conflict killed in that jurisdiction. For example the group 'Justice for the Forgotten' campaigns on behalf of those killed by Loyalist paramilitaries in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May 1974. The term has been also used within Northern Ireland by republican and nationalist groups to define those people killed by British state forces.

Hierarchy of Victims

A term which was first used by republican groups in 1998 following the publication of the Bloomfield report. Fírinne, a victims' group based in Fermanagh, believed that the Bloomfield report had sowed the seeds of elitism, and in effect created a hierarchy of victims and those of State violence were relegated to bottom of the list. The use of the term 'innocent victims' implies that there are deserving and undeserving victims of the conflict and hence a hierarchy of victims is implicitly assumed. At the top of the hierarchy might be placed children who were killed by republican paramilitaries. At the bottom of the list would be republican paramilitaries who, for example, accidentally blew themselves up while transporting a bomb, or who were shot and killed while armed and on 'active service' by security force personnel.

Innocent Victims

This term has been used by unionist and loyalist groups to define those people killed by republican paramilitary groups. The term is usually taken to mean both civilian and security force victims. As the groups who use the term in this context are mainly drawn from the unionist tradition, the implicit inference is that the 'innocent victims' were all Protestant. Of course the term is also used within the nationalist community usually to refer to civilian victims of loyalist paramilitaries and also civilian victims of the security forces.

Innocent Victims of Terrorism

A term used by unionist politicians. While the term implicitly includes both Protestant and Catholic victims of paramilitary groups, it explicitly excludes those victims killed by the RUC and the British Army.

Unequal Victims

The term appears to have been used by the Loughgall Truth and Justice Campaign which acts for the families of the eight IRA members killed by the SAS in Loughgall on 8 May 1987.


Unionist politicians have in the past criticised nationalists for indulging in the 'politics of victimhood'. The term has been used in relation to allegations by nationalists of discrimination carried out by unionist administrations.


Web Page Information
Author: Dr Sara McDowell (CAIN Research Associate, January-May 2007)
Dr Martin Melaugh (CAIN Director)
Date of first draft: 29 May 2007
Dates of modifications: Revised 19 Aug 2008; 3 February 2009
Edited: Dr Martin Melaugh
PDF version: glossary.pdf [PDF; 159KB]
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