Dealing with the Present?: Is Northern Ireland Addressing the Needs of Victims and Survivors? (updated)

As a society transitioning from violent conflict, how is Northern Ireland doing in terms of addressing the needs of victims and survivors?

The Belfast-based NGO Contemporary Christianity last night hosted a discussion with Victims and Survivors Commissioners Bertha McDougall and Brendan McAllister, titled ‘Dealing with the Present?: Addressing the needs of victims and survivors.’ (Audio of the discussion is now online.)

The conversation revealed that much of what has been promised to the victims and survivors sector has not yet been delivered. There was also a suggestion that local government could push its responsibilities for ‘dealing with the past’ onto the victims and survivors sector – therefore abdicating leadership and responsibility for a broader, more comprehensive approach to the past.

The Commission for Victims and Survivors (CVS) was established in 2008 through legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. For many Slugger readers, CVS may be best known for generating controversy because of the appointment of four, rather than the originally imagined one, victims’ commissioners.

McDougall and McAllister provided an overview of what the CVS actually does. I’m not convinced that the general public has a sufficient understanding of what CVS does – myself included – so I was grateful for that.

So what does the CVS do? Broadly, it ‘promote(s) the interests of victims and survivors of the conflict.’ What that means in practical terms is having a coordinating role for various victims groups, as well as meeting or talking with victims and survivors and directing them towards appropriate groups if necessary. It also has an advisory role to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

CVS should be part of what McDougall and McAllister called a broader ‘Victims/Survivors Infrastructure.’ This is theoretically composed of five bodies that should have responsibilities to the sector. Note that three of the five bodies have yet to be established. They are:

  1. The Office of the First Minister/Deputy First Minister – formulates policy and provides funding
  2. The Commission for Victims and Survivors – promotes the interests of victims; maintains strategic oversight and advises Government about meeting the needs of victims/survivors
  3. The Victims and Survivors Service (yet to be established) – responds to individual victims; ensures services are developed and funds service providers
  4. The Conflict-Related Services Meetings (yet to be established) – a mechanism for practitioners and service providers in the statutory, community and voluntary sectors
  5. The Forum for Victims and Survivors (yet to be established) – for consultation and discussion with victims and survivors. McDougall and McAllister explained that this Forum met on a pilot basis from September 2009-June 2010.

McDougall and McAllister indicated that there had been delays and disappointments in the process of trying to get the other three bodies up and running. Some in the audience were concerned that these bodies would be abandoned in the current political climate, where funding is scarce, while others wondered if the bodies would operate efficiently.

My sense was that the CVS feels it cannot function properly without the input provided by the remaining three bodies.

At the same time, CVS is undertaking a comprehensive needs assessment of the victims and survivors sector. Its interim report was published in September 2010 and its final report is due in September 2011.

McDougall and McAllister shared what the CVS believes should be the priorities of government towards the sector, in this order (the most important first):

  1. Health and Well-Being – physical and mental health
  2. Social Support – individualised and/or community-based social care
  3. Individual Financial Support – addressing the particular financial needs of individuals and families
  4. Truth, Justice and Acknowledgement – dealing with the legacy of the past
  5. Welfare Support – ensuring victims/survivors receive their welfare entitlements
  6. Trans-generational issues and Young People – that which is being handed on to the young and unborn
  7. Personal and Professional Development – addressing issues of personal and professional competence

What stands out for me in this list is the relatively high ranking of ‘truth, justice and acknowledgement’, well above so-called practical needs like receiving welfare entitlements, and personal and professional development.

I’m still not convinced that our politicians and the general public realise just how important truth, justice and acknowledgement are – not just for victims and survivors themselves but for facilitating a wider process of social healing. It’s easier to think that pouring money into welfare or professional development will solve all the difficulties.

McDougall and McAllister also said that the CVS recommends that Northern Ireland’s political  parties and the two governments show some leadership in developing a ‘civic vision.’ This would include making the case that in order for there to be a peaceful and reconciled future, Northern Ireland needs to have a serious discussion (followed by serious action) about how we remember the past.

I think that without that kind of political leadership, there’s a danger that the CVS will be seen as the body that deals with the past, implying that the past is only the concern of victims and survivors. This would let everyone else – particularly those who bear responsibility for  violence, on all sides – off the hook.