A number of victims’ groups have called on the NI victims’ commissioner to resign as she has neither the “confidence nor trust” of a large number of the people she is responsible for representing.
In a statement released on Sunday, 14 bodies said commissioner Judith Thompson’s views on who should be eligible for a Troubles pension are at odds with the majority of those innocent victims bereaved or injured through terrorist activity.
‘We cannot stand idly by whilst innocent victims of terrorism continue to be marginalised’
Many victims were angered last week when Ms Thompson reiterated her support for a pension for all those severely injured during the Troubles – including former paramilitaries who were injured while carrying out terrorist attacks.
New legislation rushed through the Commons on Friday has paved the way for a Troubles pension, despite concerns that the wording of the bill does not explicitly exclude those with self-inflicted injuries.
However, the government has stated that the spirit of the legislation is that ex-terrorists will not be able to claim a pension.
On Friday evening 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.”
The list of groups backing the resignation call includes: South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF); Wounded Police Officers and Families Association; Derg Valley Victims Voice and the Co Armagh Phoenix Group.
“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,” the statement says.
Republic of Ireland-based Independent Victims and Survivors Coalition and the LIVES Project (Liberating Innocent Victims Empowering them to Succeed) in Great Britain have also signed the statement.
“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 says.
The statement claims that a number of other victims’ groups will add their names to the resignation call once they have convened meetings of their management committees.
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.
“The refusal of the commissioner to reflect the majority position of victims/survivors (which we submit is the position held by the majority of the NI population) – namely that those who injured themselves by their own hand or who hold serious criminal convictions as a result of a Troubles related offence(s) should not benefit – has retraumatised very many innocent victims and survivors.
“Beyond this resignation we implore the UK government to immediately bring forward plans to introduce a UK-wide definition of victim/survivor of terrorism which would encompass the Northern Ireland Troubles alongside other acts and campaigns of terrorism ie Al-Qaeda or IS inspired. Only when this happens will we have the means to transform this society.”
At present, the official definition of a victim – contained in the 2006 Stormont House Agreement – does not differentiate between innocent victims and perpetrators.
Last week the commissioner said payments to those injured during the Troubles should be tiered depending on the severity of their injuries.
Ms Thompson has insisted she will continue to “communicate ... the views of all victims and survivors” despite the calls for her to resign.
Commenting after 14 bodies demanded she step aside, Ms Thompson said: “It is entirely understandable that many people are deeply uncomfortable and indeed angry that the definition of a victim as laid down in 2006 could allow someone who has harmed others to be eligible for a pension.
“However, when the secretary of state asked me to update the commission’s 2014 advice on the Victims and Survivors Pensions Arrangement the terms of reference for this advice did not include the issue of the definition of a victim.
“This was because officials recognised that my office operates under the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006; therefore to make recommendations contrary to this legislation would be outside the law.
“It is not in the gift of the commission to change legislation: It is my duty to represent those people who are living on benefits and need this pension to achieve a reasonable standard of life in their advancing years.”
Ms Thompson added: “From the outset I have been clear that to not allow any progress for the overwhelming majority of people who have waited so long for it, due to disagreement around a very small number, is a huge and hurtful disservice to those survivors who have lived with the anxiety of an uncertain financial future.
“I will continue to communicate to politicians at Stormont and Westminster, the views of all victims and survivors as is my statutory duty.”
Both the DUP peer Lord Morrow and Ulster Unionist Lord Empey said they have been reasonably “reassured” by government statements on the new bill, that it is not intended to provide a pension for any former paramilitaries.
Despite the reassurances, Tory MP Maria Caulfield believes the new bill should have clearly stated that anyone injured while involved in terrorist activity can not get a payout.
“But if you look at the legislation we have passed, I don’t see that in the wording of the legislation,” she told the News Letter.
“So it does cover people who have been convicted of terrorism – saying their convictions would be looked at as a reason to deny them a pension – but there are people who took part in terrorist activity who were never convicted, so my fear is that they wouldn’t be covered by any of those amendments at all.”
The 14 groups are:
South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF)
South and East Tyrone Welfare Support Group (Moygashel)
Wounded Police Officers and Families Association
MUVE Project (Cookstown)
NI Retired Prison Officers Fellowship
NI Prison Service Benevolent
Out of the Shadows (Richhill)
Decorum N.I (Bangor)
Derg Valley Victims Voice (Castlederg)
County Armagh Phoenix Group
Independent Victims and Survivors Coalition (Republic of Ireland)
The LIVES Project (Liberating Innocent Victims Empowering them to Succeed) – Great Britain