Fresh start? Spare a thought for victims and the survivors

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has called for people to remember the victims and survivors of the Troubles.

I have studied this from a number of angles: journalist, Victims Commissioner, politician. I can even argue some members of my own family were victims, following the bomb that blew up the family business in 1973.

What strikes me about the politicians’ approach to dealing with the legacy of the past at recent talks processes is that it is so narrow, measured almost exclusively in terms of truth, justice and reconciliation.

These are important matters, of course, especially for a number of individuals and families directly impacted by violence. I say “a number” of individuals and families, because not all victims and survivors seek truth, never mind due process.

Remember Gordon Wilson immediately after the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing? How he forgave the people who had just murdered his beloved daughter, Marie? Gordon sat at one end of a spectrum that extends to those who will not be satisfied unless the perpetrators are locked up and the key thrown away.

That range of views simply reflects human nature. What I find puzzling is that we do not know the numbers. How many want truth? Truth and justice? Who simply want acknowledged?

There are clues. The Commission for Victims & Survivors undertook a comprehensive assessment of the needs of victims. That produced a league table of needs, and Truth, Justice and Acknowledgement is not number one. In fact, it does not even make the top three: it ranks fourth.

There are other issues, some less controversial, some entirely uncontroversial, that need addressed. Top of my list is our appalling record of poor mental health and wellbeing. Per capita, Northern Ireland may have the worst rates in the world; and it is a legacy issue.

If you take a map of the Troubles, measured by bombings and shootings, you see a Northern Ireland with significant hot spots, like north Belfast. If you superimpose a modern day map of our mental health issues, measured by attempted and completed suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, you find the same hot-spots, like north Belfast.

People not only remain traumatised years and decades after the event that changed their lives, that trauma is passed on inter-generationally, to the point where people born after the ceasefires are living the legacy. The result is thousands of our people waking up today with no real sense of purpose in their lives, and going to bed tonight denied a sense of achievement.

Their lives do not have to be like that. We know there are interventions, medical and societal, that would be transformational. I have taken that message to Prime Minister Cameron. I know he gets it. I have taken it to Shadow Secretaries of State and know they do too. Likewise, the local parties.

The impact of the Lost Lives of those who died in the conflict cannot be ignored. But nor should the lost opportunities of the living, in health, housing, education and employment.

It’s a massive part of the toxic legacy of the past. And it can be done!