Northern Ireland’s Victims Commissioner has said that talks are ongoing to resolve the political stalemate with regard to dealing with the legacy of the conflict.
Judith Thompson was in Derry on Wednesday as part of the process of revitalising the Victims Forum.
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ she said: “One of the biggest and most important jobs that I faced when I came into the role was to return the Victims Forum. You cannot appoint people without a Commissioner so there were a few months with nobody there to appoint, so when I came in there were a number of vacancies to be filled.
“Rather than going to people and saying ‘would you like to join this’, which didn’t feel like an open and inclusive way of doing it, we have done something different this time. We’ve gone to public advertisement and are really reaching out to people who don’t like to think of themselves as victims or survivors but who have that lived experience or people who for whatever reason have not engaged in that conversation.
“It’s a very important cross cutting group who can actively work for a common purpose around victims’ issues even when political opinions are divided. There is a common purpose and they articulate that with a real authority and integrity.
What you need to be able to do is feel comfortable to be in a room with people from very different backgrounds and work in a respectful manner to raise the needs of all victims and survivors.
These conversations are happening in the back roomsI regularly hear people say ‘they are just waiting for us to die’
“We met 15 or 20 people from this neck of the woods all of whom have substantial lived experience and a lot to offer us and who are interested in becoming part of the forum.”
The failure of the political parties at the end of 2015 to reach agreement on mechanisms on dealing with the past has caused uncertainty about the way forward for many victims’ families.
The ‘Journal’ therefore asked Judith Thompson for her view on the set up as it currently stands and what if any progress has been made.
She said: “Victims issues are political everywhere, but they have a whole other level to them in Northern Ireland. I am not sure that I see this as a bad time. We have been through different structures, from the Eames-Bradley Report, much of that report, if you take out the issue of the individual payment, much of the rest of it is the bones of what is currently sitting there of what was to be the ‘Fresh Start’.
“You can trace it from Eames-Bradley to Haas-O’Sullivan to the Stormont House Agreement to the ‘Fresh Start’ that we didn’t get for victims. We’ve had a lot of quiet conversations in the margins in the time while politicians were in purdah and the election was coming. We’ve now got a period of three years of fairly clear political space in terms of no elections. So, I think there is a time when politicians can find a way to make difficult decisions that they believe are in the best interests of victims’, survivors and the community as a whole. These conversations are happening in the back rooms. I agree, it’s tough but we have got some concrete proposals and we have still got some momentum behind them.”
“You sit in a room and listen to people who have that lived experience , no matter where they come from, and they will say we need a good understanding of mental health trauma and a prepared mental health trauma service. The people with physical injuries aren’t properly looked after. I spoke to a family this morning that paid for residential care for a severely injured family member for years because it was residential care and not nursing care and nobody else was going to pay.
“We’ve got a big legacy to deal with in terms looking after people and in the broadest sense you could say this is reparation. I think about the bereaved too-all of this stuff is universally signed up to.
“Everyone is looking for different outcomes perhaps. There are a number of different outcomes people want from truth and justice.
“There is still quite a substantial wish from people to have a better understanding of what happened and I don’t think that will go away.”
The ‘Journal’ also asked the Commissioner of she believed the political will existed to put together a deal on the past.
“I think we came incredibly close with ‘Fresh Start’, a lot closer than we thought initially. So, yes there was a political will there. There is a bit of political re-forming going on in government, but yes there are still people pushing for this,” Judith Thompson said.
“We haven’t landed it yet but we need to push it. It’s not about getting anything that will do. It’s about getting something that will deliver.
“To put people through raised expectations and then disappoint them would be worse than doing nothing,” she continued.
Another point of contention for some families has been the introduction of the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) who have now taken over from the Historical Enquiries Team.
One aim of the HIU is to deal with cases in a historical fashion. For example, this has caused consternation amongst some of the Bloody Sunday families who have pointed out that there is a live murder investigation ongoing in relation to the events of January 30, 1972.
There are also major concerns about non-disclosure of information covered by the insertion of a ‘national security’ clause that exempts the British Government from releasing certain files.
The Victims Commissioner told the ‘Journal’: “I am pretty clear that the document as it sat at that time was very much a draft.
“Things have moved a long way away from that during the talks. People should not look at that document and see it as a statement of where we are. I believe there have been conversations that have moved that debate forward. There are ways of transcending issues such as ‘national security’.
“But also, there is the issue of who wants to be included and who doesn’t want to be included?
“For example, the Omagh bomb case. Individuals involved in that may feel they would rather have a public inquiry instead of a historical investigation.
“So the determination of what the scope of the HIU will be is not 100 per cent clear yet. That will be a political issue for some people as well.
“Overall, I am cautiously optimistic.
“It is very, very important to make clear that this is an issue that isn’t going to go away. Regardless of whether it is progressed now or later and sooner or later we are going to have to stop pushing it down the road and tackle it.
“I regularly hear people say ‘they are just waiting for us to die’.
“I don’t believe that is what happens. Even if individuals tragically pass on without seeing what they want to in terms or recognition or acknowledgment, I know from people pursuing cases who can tell me when they die who are going to take it up for them.
“We are now seeing children and grandchildren coming forward to take cases over.
“The purpose of me being in Derry is to replenish the Forum. The Forum is a unique. It’s set in the legislation. It is the voice of the people who have got lived experience and their chance to influence policy and government in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Government around issues that are relevant to victims of the ‘Troubles’. It is great that we have had a good response from this city and elsewhere to our call for new members. People should expect to see a revitalised Forum.”