To go back on this would be a betrayal of victims

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The government seems to have been in listening mode when it came to the outcry there was over the possibility of including terrorists in any scheme to help victims of violence during the Troubles.

When it was suggested that those who murdered and maimed might qualify for the same financial package as their victims and families, there was justifiable outrage and indignation.

And rightly so! The idea beggared belief and ran contrary to everything society holds dear.

To even consider a financial reward for the men and women who delivered misery and heartbreak to hundreds of homes was a bridge too far. It was repugnant and deserved nothing but outright rejection.

Ulster Human Rights Watch Advocacy Service, alongside others in our sector, strenuously argued for an end to this nonsensical and ludicrous idea.

The mere suggestion of it served to re-open old wounds and re-traumatise victims and survivors, making them feel that the state was indifferent to their suffering.

For many, it meant the callous re-opening of psychological wounds which they have grappled with for years.

Now, in what must be a welcome development, the government appears to have moved to accept our position on the immorality of rewarding terrorists.

The sea-change is contained in a report drafted by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on progress made towards the formation of an Executive which was laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith MP.

The report states that the Northern Ireland Office has been working on a scheme which would include who would benefit from the scheme and who would not, the latter including “those injured in a Troubles-related incident and convicted of playing a role in orchestrating”.

The NIO has now prepared what it terms “detailed advice on the proposed architecture of the scheme”. It follows deeply unhelpful advice that was published by the Northern Ireland Victims and Survivors Commissioner in May.

Sound sense seems to have returned and must now prevail.

There can be no stepping back from this stated position, otherwise victims of terrorists will feel further betrayal and abandonment and that would be a massive injustice.

It is time to move on. There is a relatively tight time-frame to get this issue resolved and if an Executive is not formed by October 21, the secretary of state will make regulations by the end of January that will come into force by the end of May next year.

It is conceivable that eight months from now we should have long overdue clarity and the very real prospect of closure. Regulations should point to entitlements and a time-frame for implementation when people will receive financial assistance.

The NIO Report to Parliament also raised the interesting question of the type of financial package the government has in mind.

There’s a discernible shift in language, from talk of a pension to innocent victims of terrorist violence to the possibility of ‘one or more payments’.

Not unreasonably, we are now asking a series of questions. Is a pension no longer the preferred direction of travel? What are the advantages of a payment or payments system? What would be the monetary level of such a payment? Would it be a one-off or several payments? If the latter, how many payments would there be and over what period of time would they be paid?

The NIO should be able to give us the clarity we require as in the work that it undertook over the summer, officials examined levels and methods of payments, technical and practical details of the scheme and an appeals process.

In the spirit of openness and transparency, it would be a measure of good faith if the NIO moved to publish all relevant information.

Ulster Human Rights Watch is giving its qualified support for the steps set out in this Report to Parliament. We particularly welcome the exclusion clause as our view is that terrorists injured in a Troubles-related incident, and convicted of playing a role in an attack, can never qualify for a pension or any form of payment.

To extend a scheme to them would be abhorrent and hugely insulting to innocent victims of terrorism.

Ulster Human Rights Watch Advocacy Service cannot take things at face value and would hope that the regulations – the end product – will confirm what is stated in the NIO report.

Only when the fine print in the regulations will provide appropriate payments for victims of terrorism effectively excluding terrorists from the scheme would it be possible to say ‘well done’…..for doing what was right.

l Axel Schmidt is Ulster Human Rights Watch advocacy support manager