Change the definition of ‘victim’, says top CoI man

Former Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames
Former Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames

Former Church of Ireland Primate Lord Eames has said that the legal definition of a Troubles victim needs to be changed in order to distinguish between those who engaged in lawful and unlawful activity.

The senior cleric made the call in an interview in this week’s edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette, an independent magazine for the church.

He said that, “despite the difficulties in drafting”, the distinction should be made between those upholding and those breaking the law, and revealed that he had “argued the point with politicians frequently” and had discussed definitions for the term “victim” with civil servants.

The existing Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 defines a victim and survivor as someone injured as a result of “a conflict-related incident”, someone who provides a substantial amount of care for such an individual, or someone bereaved as a result of such an incident.

The long-running problem with this statutory definition for many people has been the fact that it suggests a “moral equivalence” between, for example, members of paramilitary organisations and police officers or soldiers; the current law holds that a bomber injured by his or her own bomb would be as much a victim as passers-by who were injured by it.

In its report of 2009, the former Consultative Group on the Past (CGP), which was co-chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, indicated that to continue debating the definition issue would be “both fruitless and self-defeating”, but the unresolved issue went on to be a sticking point in last year’s Haass discussions. The final draft of those talks stated that “one of the most contentious issues we considered was who should be considered eligible for victims’ services”.

Lord Eames said that in the course of the preparation of the CGP report he had spent much time examining the South African Truth Commission papers and had become convinced that to take that precise model and put it into Northern Ireland would be “impossible”.

However, he said that the CGP’s proposed Legacy Commission had “emerged as a way of achieving the same but in a different way, namely, by combining ingredients of investigative powers, storytelling and reconciliation”, adding that in recent times there had been increased interest in some similar approach.

The peer said that if an agreed way of dealing with the past could be reached, society could “move ahead with a new confidence” and “true sharing could begin to emerge”.

However, he warned that this would require “willingness to cooperate, a new honesty and a preliminary agreement on how parties and individuals could be persuaded to tell the truth”.