In the latest essay, DAPHNE TRIMBLE says that when the political landscape shifted to a DUP/SF led executive, responsibility for the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund moved to OFMDFM. A bitter pill for the board, of which she was a member, to swallow was the insistence from OFMDFM that they include perpetrators or they would cut all funding
After 30 troubled years, 1998 was a year which held out promise for a stable and peaceful future for Northern Ireland; but it also was the year of the largest loss of life in a single incident with the Omagh bomb.
In December of that year I went to Oslo for the Nobel peace prize ceremony for my husband David Trimble and John Hume jointly.
Whilst there Pat Hume and I talked about how we might help in cementing the way forward.
We agreed that if we could do something for the victims of the Troubles it could help those who had suffered most to feel a part of this more peaceful future.
The Bloomfield report We Will Remember Them had been published recently, the outworkings of which saw the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) set up the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund (NIMF); a fund for victims under the chairmanship of Prof Sir George Bain, then Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University.
The NIMF was given £1 million, and a free hand to do something for victims.
Pat and I approached the NIO to suggest that, rather than starting our own initiative, we would bring the political support from our communities that might help this initiative to succeed.
The NIO agreed, and we joined the board shortly after we came back from Oslo.
Our underlying aim was to assist in healing the wounds of our deeply divided society, by focusing on the needs of those most closely touched by the Troubles, the injured and their carers, and the bereaved.
After six months of consulting widely, NIMF reported to the secretary of state with our recommendations for assistance to individuals, many of whom were not reached by the various victims’ groups.
The NIO gave the green light and an indication that funding would be ongoing.
We adopted the strap line Peace, Reconciliation, Support.
We started with schemes to assist with purchasing household appliances, with purchasing better prosthetics and mobility aids than were then available on the NHS, and grants for attending pain management consultants.
One of our first initiatives was to set aside a sum of money to help the families of the disappeared with funeral expenses in the event of the bodies being found.
A small gesture, but we felt that this was important and over the years this sum of money was dispersed as bodies were found.
We gave grants for education and training, ranging from after school activities for the youngest to help with tuition fees, cost of books, and even driving lessons, paying for school uniforms, all with a view to assisting young people whose lives had been worst affected by the Troubles to make better lives for themselves.
We gave grants for people to access counselling and alternative therapies, as well as a hardship fund for people in most distressing circumstances.
We arranged short breaks for families.
As part of our reconciliation work we ran coach tours for widows, bereaved from both sides of the community coming together and forming friendships.
For young people we teamed with Habitat for Humanity to send teams of young people to build houses in poorer parts of the world.
This was sensitive work, but so gratifying to see young people building their self confidence, some to the point where they were able to enter the workplace for the first time.
We helped over 6,000 people who had been affected by wide range of incidents, including the IRA and loyalist atrocities at the Abercorn in Belfast in 1972 and Greysteel in 1993.
Did we define a victim? No.
Our different schemes were targeted at differing classes of victim, for example, bereaved spouses, or children, or the injured, physically or psychologically.
In the early years, under the light touch regulation of the NIO we were firm in our resolve to exclude perpetrators.
When the political landscape of NI shifted to a DUP/SF led executive, responsibility for the NIMF was moved to Stormont, specifically to OFMDFM, and things changed.
We had to give up the reconciliation work, we were told that was for others to do; we were directed to shift to a needs-based delivery, that meant means testing, where before we had operated on the basis that any grant or benefit was a recognition of loss or suffering.
A bitter pill for the board to swallow was the insistence from OFMDFM that we must include perpetrators, otherwise they would cut all of our funding.
All autonomy was being taken from the board members, and by 2012 the work of the fund was ‘mainstreamed’ by being passed to the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS).
Overall the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund oversaw over £20 million of support to ordinary individuals whose lives had been damaged in many different ways by the Troubles.
Throughout its existence the board members acted in an entirely voluntary capacity.
I have no doubt that VSS provides a valuable service for victims and survivors; but it had a very shaky start, and remains dependent on year on year funding from Stormont.
Looking at its website it is clear that some of the areas of its work with individuals has followed on from the work of the NIMF, but it has developed into something that appears to be purely a grant making body, and directing people to Victims Groups for any other service.
The reconciliation work that was such an important part of the NIMF’s work has been lost.
Did victims see any benefit from the change? I don’t know the answer to that.
Is there anything at all in the legacy consultation that will help victims to move forward with their own lives?
Aside from the proposed pension for the injured, which is admirable, I can’t see it.
Focusing on ‘Who did what to whom’ only serves to keep old wounds open, particularly where the principal perpetrators continue to deny their actions, and the security and police services are the only ones who retain records.
Far better to put even a fraction of the money into giving the victims and survivors a chance to recover the lives they might have had; something which was at the heart of the work of the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund.
Do the VSS who took over the work of the fund still include perpetrators?
Again, I don’t know.
• Daphne Trimble was a practising solicitor who then ran her husband David Trimble’s constituency office when he was Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann. She is a former member of the Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission