The appointment of a new Victims’ Commissioner has sparked a fresh call for paramilitaries to be excluded from the category of officially recognised victims.
The incoming commissioner was officially revealed yesterday to be Englishwoman Judith Thompson, who will take up her post in September after being appointed by the first and deputy first ministers.
The news prompted an immediate wave of renewed pressure for a change in the law, with the TUV saying that regardless of how skilled the new commissioner is, she still has to contend with “a flawed definition of victim contained within the legislation under which she operates”.
Campaign group Innocent Victims United (IVU) congratulated her on her appointment, adding: “But in many ways we are not focusing today on the individual appointed, but more so the operating environment which they are stepping into.”
Loyalist victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer said that whilst a change in the law needs to come, he stressed that it is ultimately down to politicians to make the change, not the commissioner herself.
The £75,000-per-year post of commissioner has been vacant for the last year-or-so year, and initial efforts to fill it resulted only in a “disappointingly small” number of worthwhile applicants, according to the first minister.
Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for IVU, called for a commitment to come as soon as possible from the new commissioner stating that she will help to deal with “issues which are clearly broken” – including “the unsustainable definition of victim”.
Under the current law (the 2006 Victims and Survivors Order) there is no distinction between a civilian who was hurt by paramilitary violence, and a paramilitary who was hurt whilst trying to murder someone.
The TUV has dubbed this “a perversion of the very notion of justice”, while the UUP has described it as “morally unacceptable”, and the DUP calls it “an affront to innocent victims”.
The Act stems from Westminster, and it is understood that it is there that any alteration to the law must be sought.
The DUP said last night it is planning to renew efforts at pursuing a Private Member’s Bill under the new Westminster Parliament, with a view to altering the definition.
The definition of victim affects which support services individuals can access.
For example, at present Mr Donaldson said that former terrorists who are on high-rate Disability Living Allowance as a result of the Troubles can be eligible for a £1,500 top-up to their care under the Support for the Injured Scheme, while a £500 payment can be accessed by widows of a terrorist who died as a result of the Troubles.
How victimhood is defined will also affect a pensions scheme which has been proposed specifically to help those hurt in the Troubles.
Willie Frazer, spokesman for Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR), said: “Obviously, I’d like to see the definition of victim changed.
“But it’s not down to her [Judith Thompson] – it’s down to our politicians.
“Hopefully she’ll be able to take soundings from the community and feed that back to the politicians. This is something that needs to change for the good of the community and the peace process, if you want to call it that.”
The newly appointed commissioner was not conducting interviews with any newspapers last night.
However, she issued a statement which said: “There are many serious issues to take forward, including a pension for the severely injured, the effectiveness of historical investigations for families, and the funding of essential services for the sector as people get older and needs become even more acute.
“In the first instance however, I want to listen carefully to what the Victims’ Forum, victims’ groups and the Victims’ Service have to say, to be aware of their priorities and share with them my approach to dealing with their needs and building for the future.”
Announcing the move, Peter Robinson said: “The needs of victims and survivors are of paramount importance and we are determined that their voices continue to be heard and that their needs are met.
“Judith will play a critical role in providing professional, sensitive and needs-focused support to victims and survivors.”
The previous commissioner, Kathryn Stone, refused to use the word ‘terrorists’ when talking about the UVF or the IRA.
However, Mr Frazer is unconcerned whether the new commissioner does so or not – so long as she assists victims.
“At the end of the day, personally I think it’s irrelevant what she says or what her views are,” he said.
Asked specifically if she should be required to say that the IRA or UVF were terrorists, he said: “No, no”.
He added: “If you ask me personally what I think, as far as I’m concerned the people at Loughgall were terrorists [the eight IRA men killed by the SAS in 1987]. I don’t need her standing up to say that, if she’s looking after the victims.”
Among the issues he wants to see addressed is the length of time funding packages for support groups run for.
For instance, a current £51,000 funding package for FAIR is due to run out after one year, which he said makes it difficult to put a long-term plan in place for working with some families.
Seat has been vacant for around one year
Kathryn Stone announced in April 2014 that she intended to step down as victims’ commissioner.
She exited the post roughly one year ago, having taken it up about 19 months earlier.
Ever since, it has been vacant.
In the meantime, the commission’s team has been pursuing a programme of work previously set by Ms Stone – although this has now largely run its course, and a new programme is needed.
In January this year, the first minister said that their attempts to recruit a replacement had, by that stage, yielded only a “disappointingly small pool of appointable candidates” for the £75,000-a-year job, and that he was renewing the search for potential commissioners.
What does the post involve?
The commissioner is obliged to perform six functions.
Among them are reviewing “the adequacy and effectiveness” of the law relating to victims, and monitoring the quality of the services they are getting.
The commissioner is also tasked with “advising the Secretary of State, the Executive Committee of the Assembly and anybody or person providing services for victims and survivors on matters concerning the interests of victims and survivors”.