Victims still have make their case – a lesson from Venables

In the hue and cry over the Jon Venables case, the assumption goes unquestioned that Denise Fergus the mother of murdered toddler Jamie Bolger has “ a right to know” the details of Venables’ alleged reoffending. No one lightly crosses the mother of an infant murder victim, but Simon Jenkins is surely right to conclude that justice is a meal best served cold and as free as possible from public comment during the investigative and judicial process. To bow uncritically to Mrs Fergus’s natural fears and demands is to deprive her of her own sense of wider responsibility. We live in a less deferential age when judges are no more treated like Gods than are politicians. Victims have been elevated to a new status and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland, although their status remains unclear.At the same time it is neither possible nor desirable to shut a family victim up. The gruelling campaigns of the Omagh families and the McCartneys may not have been successful but they uncovered much that would have remained hidden. Penny Holloway’s is a case in point where her brave and skilful campaign carried on to the highest level won a rare reappraisal of a decision not to proceed in the case of the murder of her son Thomas. In cases of deep pain and controversy, we can only proceed case by case and with minds as open as possible and with no grandstanding from politicians. While it is right that more heed is paid to victims than ever before, their demands should not be accepted just because they are victims. These issues should be considered even more carefully, now that Justice powers are about to be handed over. All the parties should be alive to the danger of turning cases into political footballs. They must question their own prejudices. The behaviour of politicians on the Policing Board sets a mainly helpful precedent. “Justice” is both what the courts say it is and what the public thinks it is. It is up to us all, not just the judicial process, to ensure that the two coincide.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London