Northern Ireland

Trauma passed from generation to generation in absence of mechanism to deal with the past

Almost two decades after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a public consultation on legislation to deal with the past is due to be launched within weeks. Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson tells The Irish News that a line will never be drawn under Northern Ireland's troubled history until victims receive truth and acknowledgement

Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson at her south Belfast office. Picture by Bill Smyth
Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson at her south Belfast office. Picture by Bill Smyth

VICTIMS of the Troubles were told by Secretary of State James Brokenshire last month that a decision will be taken this autumn, in the absence of an assembly, to begin consultation on plans for dealing with the legacy of the past.

Judith Thompson, who has held the post of Victims Commissioner since 2015, welcomes the government pledge - saying "entire families have been ruined" because of lack of progress.

"It is shocking is when you sit down in a room with people and you see the impact that has on their lives everyday right up to the present," she said.

"People feel they have an obligation to the person who died, no matter how difficult it is, and you see individuals within families who have taken on that role at great personal cost.

"One elderly man I met had shouldered responsibility for trying to get an investigation into his brother's death, for his brother's sake and his mother's sake and his family's sake.

"And he found himself bewildered by what they had to encounter, he had this battered folder and he said 'I know which one of my sons is going to pick that up when I die and I know he'll ask one of his sons to do it if we don't get there', and you could just see that folder being passed from generation to generation."

The consultation will ask those who were bereaved, injured or traumatised by the Troubles to give their feedback on mechanisms proposed in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

These include an Historical Investigations Unit with police powers to investigate the past, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval for 'truth recovery', and an Oral History Archive.

Ms Thompson said: "Some of our members hadn't even told their colleagues at work about the husband they lost, and some are very old and frail so we have asked that the consultation be as wide ranging as possible with options in how people engage.

"There's so much victim blaming around whether, if something happened, 'well then they must have done something' - which a lot of people got, probably particularly if they are from a nationalist community - or on the other hand, 'well if you wore a uniform you deserved it'.

"There is no perfect solution but for people to see a consistent focus is important."

The current cost of legacy policing and dealing with the past is estimated to be around £30m a year.

"The budget that has been set aside for historical investigations and new legislation is £150m, and we know that's probably not sufficient, we believe that there is another amount that has been earmarked for that," the commissioner said.

"But you look at £30m a year over two decades and set that across the cost of doing it properly even now, it's a no brainer".

Recent allegations by some Conservative MPs of a 'witch hunt' against former soldiers and the possibility of a statute of limitations to protect retired security force members from prosecution are meanwhile having a "really harmful impact" on victims on both sides.

"These people are not looking for vengeance, they want someone to acknowledge what happened, to say the people who were killed did not bring it on themselves", Ms Thompson said.

"For many people the loss of the person they loved was immediately followed by loss of reputation, so you can't just say forget it.

"And equally on the other hand you have people who served in the armed forces, and many of them had difficult experiences, many of them are victims of the Troubles, many were very young and in a situation they didn't understand.

"It was reported that there were thousands of prosecutions - well, the actual figures were given to the MoD committee (at Westminster) and... it's less than 20 and there has never been an ex-soldier convicted of anything as a result of an historical investigation.

"Another thing that hasn't been picked up is the number of ex-soldiers' families who are waiting on investigations, it is bigger than the number of soldiers who are waiting to be investigated.

"According to the PSNI there are 298 outstanding investigations into the deaths of security force members, so if historical investigations were to stop those people will lose out.

"An amnesty or a statute of limitations - and they are the same thing - in the absence of truth, justice and acknowledgement of victims would be completely unacceptable.

"To make a special case for one set of people, or more than one set of people who caused harm, in the absence of actually delivering truth and accountability or acknowledgement to victims and survivors, is not going to be acceptable to any victims or survivors."