Politicians encountered what they described as the raw hurt of IRA victims at Stormont last night during a charged meeting about legacy.
At an event in Parliament Buildings, representatives of five political parties explained their views on proposals to deal with Northern Ireland’s past, before the meeting was opened to questions, many of which were highly emotional.
There was a particular focus on the DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, who was asked by a number of people from the floor whether she had helped draw up the Stormont House Agreement legacy structures, which are out to public consultation.
Ms Little-Pengelly had in her own address declined to defend the structures and said she was there to listen to the people who count, victims.
As one member of the audience after another denounced the plan as offering no real hope to innocent victims or demonising the security forces, the meeting was frequently interrupted by applause.
When Jim Allister mentioned the Victims’ Commissioner Judith Thompson, who was present, in connection with the definition of a victim, which he said does not make a distinction between innocent victim and perpetrator, a person in the crowd shouted at Ms Thompson: “Shame on you.”
Then, in a dramatic moment, Shelley Gilfillan from Castlederg, whose brother Kenneth was murdered by the IRA in 1971, approached Ms Little-Pengelly to ask if she approved the Stormont House legacy structures that are out to consultation.
Ms Gilfillan asked the room how many people who had received an HET report under the old legacy investigative system, and about two dozen people put up their hands. How many were happy she asked? No-one put up their hand.
Last night’s event in Stormont’s Long Gallery was the latest in a series organised by South East Fermanagh Foundation in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic, but none previously has been attended by a senior member of the DUP.
Emotions have been running high at all the meetings, including one in Bangor in June which the News Letter covered.
Last night’s most notable moment with a victim began when Ms Gilfillan stood up and identified herself, before adding: “I come from Castlederg, Co Tyrone. Castlederg isn’t a big town, 29 unsolved murders. I would like to ask Emma a direct question. Consultation paper of the so-called Stormont House Agreement.
“You helped draft this I believe? You were there? You helped to draft it?”
Then Ms Gilfillan turned to the audience of 115 people (according to Kenny Donaldson of SEFF). “How many people in this room have an HET report? Please put your hands all up.”
When around two dozen people did, Ms Gilfillan contined: “Thank you, thank you very much. How many people have got justice?”
No-one put up their hand.
Ms Gilfillan said: “No hands Emma. Sorry people? [applause from audience] You helped to draft this? You didn’t? You weren’t on the panel?”
Ms Little-Pengelly said: “No, I did not.”
Ms Gilfillan said: “You did not?”
The MP said it was an “NIO consultation”.
“Were you on the panel?”
Ms Little-Pengelly said: “No.”
She then began to say: “Everybody here ...” and then added: “Maybe if you’d give me the opportunity to clarify in terms of the process for this.”
She said: “I’ve made it clear that I am not tied, the DUP is not tied, in any way to any of the mechanisms ... The whole purpose of consultation is to ask for views.”
Other people spoke from the floor with equal passion.
John Sproule, also from Castlederg, whose brother Ian was murdered by the IRA in 1991, told how his father was informed of the killing by a member of what he described as “Sinn Fein-IRA” who called him and said: “Have you seen the mess we left for you outside?”
Dolores Kelly of the SDLP said she was moved by the contributions and had not heard so many such personal testimonies before.
Ms Little-Pengelly then spoke at length about the imperfections of legacy and how the party had not been able to get everything it wanted and how the alternative, the current system of legacy inquests and inquiries, was badly one-sided against the state and the party was trying to bring balance to the system.
Jim Allister of the TUV and Mike Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionists expressed firm opposition to the legacy proposals while Ms Kelly and Paula Bradshaw of Alliance explained why they were in favour.
Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered by the IRA, at the end of the meeting told the News Letter: “There are a lot of hurt people. People are so frustrated and so fed up. They are getting nowhere. They got nothing from this HET report.”
Ms Kelly said: “To me it was an eye-opener. I really think the stories of the people who have been victims of republican violence, particularly from the unionist community, their voices aren’t being heard.”
Ms Bradshaw said: “I think I was just saddened to hear so many stories and to hear people hurting so much still.”
Earlier, Mike Nesbitt told the event: “The Ulster Unionist Party does not endorse the proposals contained in this document. We are fed up with the suggestion that all parties did.
“We did not support them during Haass, not during Stormont House talks and do not support them today, for a basket of reasons.”
Mr Donaldson reminded the people present that the consultation ended on September 10, and he encouraged them to make submissions.
Mr Allister said that “we have all watched with absolute abhorrence those who made you victims” changing the narrative, “as the processes have been abused, as the media has facilitated that abuse to make it out, well, really we are all to blame”.
He said the proposals were “built on sand of equivalence between victims and perpetrators and it was unlikely from that starting point to bring you justice”.