A lack of support across a large swathe of terror victims has made it impossible for the NI victims’ commissioner to continue in her post, Emma Little Pengelly has said.
Commissioner Judith Thompson has been roundly criticised by a number of victims’ groups, and several elected respresentatives, over her stance on the controversial pension for those severely injured during the Troubles.
Ms Thompson has based her pension provision advice to government around the legal definition contained in the 2006 Victims and Survivors (NI) Order – which makes no distinction between victims of terrorism and perpetrators.
Although stopping short of explicitly calling for the commissioner to step aside, the DUP MP said Ms Thompson’s remit includes the prerogative to recommend legislative change to protect genuine victims.
“The fact she has not done so has disappointed and dismayed many innocent victims, Ms Little Pengelly said.
“The commissioner has lost the confidence of a large swathe of the people whom her office is meant to represent. It is impossible for her to now carry out her role to the full in these conditions.”
We are seeking a new United Kingdom-wide definition which would exclude terrorists injured by their own actionsEmma Little Pengelly
Ms Little Pengelly went on to say: “There is no equivalence between the bomber and the innocent victim.
“The definition of a victim must be changed. It is immoral. That is why we are seeking a new United Kingdom wide definition which would exclude terrorists injured by their actions.
“This commissioner’s term expires at the end of this month. As there is no local administration, the appointment of the victims’ commissioner is a matter for the Secretary of State. It is vital that this important office is led by someone who can command the confidence of innocent victims of terrorism.”
Last month, 14 victims groups representing more than 10,000 people issued a joint statement calling on the commissioner to resign, as she has neither the “confidence nor trust” of a large number of the people she is responsible for representing.
The list of groups included the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), the Wounded Police Officers and Families Association and the Co Armagh Phoenix Group.
Their statement said: “We no longer have confidence or trust in her office nor the way in which she administers the role of chief advocate for victims and survivors.”
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey added his voice to the resignation calls, saying: “This is an early test for Julian Smith MP, our new Secretary of State. If he reappoints Judith Thompson to the role of commissioner, he will be endorsing her view that the pension should also be available to those who staged attacks. This is totally unacceptable.”
At the time, a government spokesman said: “The government has been clear. This is a pension for those injured ‘through no fault of their own’. It would be wrong to suggest that this is a pension for terrorists.”
Despite the assurance, new legislation rushed through Parliament in recent weeks, which gives the green light for the Troubles pension, does not explicitly prohibit injured terrorists from accessing a payout.
In a statement on behalf of Ms Thompson to the News Letter yesterday, the commission said the legal definition of a victim “has always been uncomfortable and contested”.
It said: “The Commissioner has always been aware that there is a perception that the VASPA (Victims and Survivors Pensions Arrangement) is somehow drawing a moral equivalence between victims and perpetrators. That is not the case.”
The 14 victims’ groups calling for Ms Thompson’s resignation said they were aggrieved at a lack of consultation around her pension recommendations presented to government, and a number of other issues, as well as her apparent endorsement of the victim definition.
The groups’ statement said: “The advice paper presented to the NIO and secretary of state last week, concerning a special pension for injured victims (VASPA), was neither consulted on nor agreed by the sector her office supposedly represents.
It goes on to say: “We have sought on repeated occasions to work with the commissioner and her office, we hoped for a change of approach but that has not materialised, we cannot and will not stand idly by whilst innocent victims/survivors of terrorism continue to be marginalised and are placed down the pecking order in terms of focus and care.”
A number of injured terror victims who have spoken to the News Letter in recent weeks said they would reject any pension if it meant they were placed in the same category as terrorists.
Statement issued on behalf of victims’ commissioner in full:
“The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors says she totally agrees that there is no moral equivalence between those who have caused harm and those who have suffered harm.
The definition of a victim was laid down by Parliament as the ultimate democratic authority. The commission has never, since its inception, sought to change the legislation on which it was created.
The definition has always been uncomfortable and contested but the fact that it exists has allowed for the creation of a 10-year government strategy and the provision of services to victims and survivors through the VSS and funded groups.
In presenting her Victims and Survivors Pensions Arrangement (VASPA) advice as requested by the secretary of state the commissioner and her office followed the terms of reference agreed between the commission, the Northern Ireland Office and The Executive Office.
At no point did the commissioner address eligibility and nor was she expected to.
The commissioner has always been aware that there is a perception that the VASPA is somehow drawing a moral equivalence between victims and perpetrators. That is not the case. Neither the commission recommendations nor the 2006 Order make any reference to moral equivalence: it is a legal definition and the parameters within which the commission must work.
The commissioner has previously welcomed the fact that the VASPA has been passed by Parliament and it was Parliament that determined the eligibility criteria.
Finally, the office of the commission is for everyone who has suffered harm and many different perspectives come through that door. That is why the commission was established.
The work towards continuing peace and reconciliation has to be uncomfortable for everyone, even the commission, but the prize has to be worth it.”