Victims and survivors at conference resolve: this must not happen again

Errol McDowell and Peter Heathwood of the Victims Forum, and Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire pictured with Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone.
Errol McDowell and Peter Heathwood of the Victims Forum, and Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire pictured with Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone.

Tales of bloodshed and tragedy were heard at the opening of a huge Troubles conference yesterday.

The gathering of up to 250 survivors, relatives and sundry campaign groups met at the Stormont Hotel for what was billed as a consultation exercise over a major new report being drawn up by the NI Victims’ Commissioner.

Much like the Haass proposals it will describe how best to deal with the Troubles legacy, but from the point of view of those directly affected by the violence, and among the things it is expected to contain is a proposal for reparations.

A spokeswoman for the organisers said they believe the conference was the biggest such gathering on victims’ issues ever held in the Province.

The attendees included everyone from relatives of dead dissidents to Willie Frazer and DUP MLA Jim Wells.

Speaking at the outset was wheelchair-bound Peter Heathwood. He survived an attack at his north Belfast home on September 27, 1979, when gunmen burst in and shot him in front of his family.

When his father Herbert arrived on the scene afterwards, he saw Peter being carried out in a bodybag and, believing he was dead, suffered a fatal heart attack himself.

Peter said because he survived the gun attack the HET (Historical Enquiries Team) would not investigate, adding that his father’s death from “emotional shock” did not fall under their remit either.

He believes the loyalist gunmen had meant to target someone else instead of him, and that state collusion had played a role in the incident.

What he wants now is “a bottom-up victim-centred roadmap for dealing with the legacy of the past”, adding: “If we can achieve that goal, and present an agreed document, it would be a powerful statement to our politicians.”

His ultimate wish was to create a Province where such things could never be repeated.

Following him at the podium was Errol McDowell, a veteran ex-RUC officer.

Among the experiences he recalled were having his uniform burned off his body by a petrol bomb in 1969, and witnessing one of the Province’s early mortar attacks in 1972.

But perhaps the worst of all was in 1985. ”I was having a meal in a canteen in Newry police station,“ he said.

“A mortar bomb exploded, and around me was nine people dead; cut to bits. That’s a terrible experience that’s lived with me all my life.”

As for the subject of collusion, he said: “When I read the papers and see the TV, it appears really to the outsider that the security forces or the state were involved in more than 3,000 deaths,” adding that such deaths really represent less than a tenth of the total.

When it came to a whole raft of infamous atrocities, he said the reponsibility lay “solely at the feet of the terrorists and the organisations which they belonged to: no-one else has to muddy the waters. It only fuels propaganda.”

He echoed Mr Heathwood’s closing words, urging attendees to work “as a group here today, to try to ensure it does not happen again”.

A mood of “despair” gripped many at the conference yesterday as the news emerged that the prosecution of the suspect in the Hyde Park bomb case had collapsed.

That is according to Kenny Donaldson, pictured, who was midway through the afternoon conference session when he heard.

“It was ironic, because we were in discussions about obtaining punitive justice,” said the Innocent Victims United (IVU) campaigner, adding that many people are asking the question: “Will there ever be anybody, pre-1998, held accountable for their crimes?”

As for the conference as a whole, and the report which is due to arise from it, his main concern is that the official definition of “victim” should be changed to exclude paramilitaries.

He said based on past experience he is not confident, but added that IVU will “hold them to account to do the right thing”.