In the sixth essay in our series on the legacy imbalance scandal, the former leading detective NORMAN BAXTER says that with each concession to terrorists the UK government gambles that the republican war machine will be placated (links to other articles in the series at the bottom of the article):
The current consultation on the government’s proposals relating to what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘legacy of Northern Ireland’s past’, should cause everyone to reflect on their experience of the Troubles and how those impacted by violence can be helped.
Priority should be given to the opinions and needs of victims — those who are survivors of brutal terrorism and carry a lifelong burden.
My first direct experience of the pain and emotional suffering of victims was as a teenager.
I answered the door at home outside Omagh one evening in summer 1974.
Standing before me was a man in his 60s bearing injuries he sustained a few weeks earlier and carrying a jacket with bullet holes.
He had been wearing the jacket when he survived an IRA gun attack, which resulted in the death of his 30-year-old friend.
These were neighbours. The purpose of the visit was to fund-raise in this rural community for the grieving family of his dead friend.
The IRA had cruelly left a young widow and a young family.
The two civilians had been carrying out traffic census work some miles from Ballygawley. They were sitting in a van. In the darkness IRA gunmen sprayed their vehicle with gunfire. They were unarmed and who posed no threat. These cowards had no knowledge of the men they were trying to kill.
A short time before his death, the victim had visited one of my uncles, and found him seriously ill.
He organised an ambulance and my uncle received lifesaving surgery. How ironic that a man who had saved a life should have his own brutally taken from him months later.
How ironic that the government’s current proposals equivocates on the distinction between the victim of terrorism and the terrorist.
How ironic it is that the perpetrators of murder are now the arbitrators of justice to the victims they created.
The demands of those whose hatred generated murder and mayhem in our country take priority.
Sadly, 44 years on, this victim is not remembered by anyone beyond his family and aging neighbours and friends who knew him.
This murder is not on the radar of any human rights group. There is no money to be generated by lawyers.
His death holds no chips at the political casino table where the British and Irish governments gamble away the democratic, legal and cultural rights of all citizens in Northern Ireland.
The government barters with the emotions and freedom of retired military veterans who risked their lives to protect our society from terrorism.
With each concession they gamble that the republican war machine will be placated.
There are thousands of other innocent victims, Catholic and Protestant, whose deaths are an inconvenience as republicans and loyalists attempt to rewrite history and redefine murder as an acceptable form of social attrition.
The suffering of their relatives and those injured is now embroiled in a political game of appeasement to the political movement that has caused the majority of pain in our society.
With sadness I remember the many conversations with this victim’s parents as they spoke about his death. They took comfort in talking about him. Their grief was exasperated by the lack of justice and the lack of support from state agencies. They lived in isolation from the criminal justice system.
The tearful recognition that, apart from a basic preliminary investigation, their son’s case was closed.
There were no ‘human rights’ lawyers knocking at their door to represent them.
This is the reality for the multitude of families of innocent victims, who have suffered in silence for decades have had no voice, they have no leverage through threats of violence or political sabotage.
This experience of hopelessness by victims’ families was reaffirmed on several occasions during my later police career.
I had the sombre privilege of visiting close relatives of murder victims. In some cases I was the first ‘official’ person in over a quarter of a century to have visited them.
Suffering for years in silence, worrying about basic questions – did their father, son, daughter, brother, sister, mother die instantly? Were they on their own when they died? Did they suffer? How exactly did they die?
Yes, the big issues mattered – who did it? Will the killers ever be brought to justice? Some solace can be given in providing basic information relating to the circumstances of the death. But real comfort comes from a belief that someone really cares; and all that is possible to do is being done.
Years later, I was shown another jacket with blood stained bullet holes, belonging to a family relative. He was ambushed on his remote farm by an IRA gang led by James Lynagh.
Although he sustained multiple wounds, he survived and lived with significant pain, displaced from his family home.
Lynagh, a ruthless serial killer, died at Loughgall in 1987, whilst carrying out an IRA bomb attack.
Lynagh’s death is now classified within a category of investigations known as ‘legacy inquests’. The state has committed to spending millions of pounds on such inquests.
It is right that a formal inquest process should be conducted into all deaths. However, the stakes at the political casino table have created an immoral imbalance between what the state spends on investigating the murders of innocent people and what is spent on investigating deaths of active terrorists.
There is also an imbalance in how resources are allocated to investigate conflict related deaths.
A hierarchy of victims has effectively been created, with those with no voice at the bottom.
The millions of pounds to be spent implementing the legacy proposals should be diverted or matched to provide funding for those injured and bereaved to access medical and psychological services and to ensure they can adapt homes or vehicles and have a proper quality of life.
Poverty should not be a consequence of having a family member murdered.
Morally, the government should be a roaring lion defending its citizens, promoting the welfare of victims and survivors, bringing hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless and comfort to the broken hearted.
The current legacy proposals are embroidered with a tapestry of weasel words, equating innocent victims with perpetrators and enabling terrorist from all sides to reminisce with immunity about how they created victims.
There are no signs of hope or leadership from the government in terms of treating victims with dignity or with fairness.
• Norman Baxter is a former chief superintendent in the RUC and PSNI, who finished his career in the serious crime branch
• Morning View, page 10
MORE ON LEGACY SCANDAL SERIES BELOW: