Drop the mawkish “peace process ” label and get down to grown up politics

In The Detail, Stephen McCaffery uses fine, straightforward reporting to bring home who are the real losers in failing to deal with the past exclusively on the basis of need. The Abercorn restaurant bomb was one of the early atrocities which stands as a permanent reproach to those who play party politics with dealing with the past today. That means all parties, those who argue over a hierarchy of victims, and all who demand full disclosure from others without offering it themselves.

Jennifer McNern and Margaret Yeaman have become friends through the victims’ group Wave.

Like others severely traumatised by the Troubles they have sought to continue with their lives, but they have received only sporadic help to cope with the horror that was visited upon them.

After being effectively ignored for decades, victims saw their plight pushed to the fore after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

But the ground-breaking Bloomfield report into coping with the past was largely ignored. A Memorial Fund provided some charitable assistance, but comprehensive schemes to deal with legacy issues that were drawn-up by the subsequent Eames-Bradley report and the ill-fated Haass talks were effectively dropped.

Each temporary rise of interest in victims’ issues brought back painful memories and raised hopes.

The Victims and Survivors Service was created in 2012 by Stormont’s Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).

“There were great problems when the service opened up,” said Jennifer. “People who were physically injured went through a very high level assessment process, a very intrusive process.

“But I have to say, at the end of it all our needs were being met to a degree.”

Six months after her care was put in place, she said she received a letter to say it was being cut.

Jennifer said her sister Rosaleen, who lost her legs and an arm in the Abercorn attack, cannot get the new electric wheelchair she needs.

“There is no money for her chair. The chair could go up into cupboards and, as I say, she has only got one hand.

“For myself, I was having massage which helps with pain relief. I was assessed for hearing aids, my hearing is bad in both ears. But that is all gone. That is not to say that everything is gone. Everyone at the end of August got £1,500 to spend until the end of March. You have to make a choice.”

Margaret, blinded in an IRA bomb in 1982 in Banbridge Co Down, said she was robbed of the chance of watching her four children grow up. She never got to see her grandchildren and has to ask relatives to describe how they look.

Her body is still riddled with shards of glass which, even decades later, continue to work their way to the surface of her skin.

Nightmares make it difficult to sleep and she has injured herself ‘running out of bed’ as she subconsciously relives the moment of the blast.

“We had to go down to the VSS to be assessed,” she said.

“When I got word of the needs that I was going to get, I was thrilled. I was very thankful for anything that I was going to get.” She got help with housework, audio recordings of the latest magazines, and massage sessions to ease her pain.

“With the massages I got a really good sleep. No nightmares.”

The massages also helped remove the glass.

“With the massage and oils, the glass was coming out. Without that, I don’t know where the glass is in my body. I get a lot of splinters coming out. When they are around your clothes they can be very painful.”

Now she will have to choose which services she can afford.

 

This is just one  tragic element in the crisis of governance which is set to continue indefinitely. The DUP and Sinn Fein have  to wake  up to the fact that they  have lost their old leverage. London and Dublin should tap them on the shoulder and point this out without ambiguity or doubt. I cannot stress enough how determined is Westminster not to intervene in devolved affairs. All this bleating about Westminster must pay and what David Cameron must do is like mice nibbling at the feet of the elephant. The begging bowl will not be filled again this time.

The full impact of austerity has yet to be felt whichever party wins power at Westminster next May.  The special entitlements of Northern Ireland are over.  The two governments will mediate but can no longer themselves afford to pull chestnuts out of the fire. The problems are real enough but political primitivism is making them worse.  A review of the Barnett formula is unlikely to win fresh gains for Northern Ireland. By definition a cut in local corporation tax would reduce rather than increase public spending.  Stormont has  baulked at water rates and increasing domestic rates to levels comparable with English council tax rates and the tax base is probably too small to yield significant extra revenue.

An outside commissioner should be appointed to conduct a financial review  and Stormont pressed to accept his or her recommendations. It surprises  me that the senior civil service have not used their legal duty  as accounting officers to spell out the issues and implement wayward  policy with due warning.

But in spite of the brinkmanship and coat trailing Stormont will not be suspended. Westminster is already imposing spending limits and we will be left to stew in our own juice until reality dawns, if it ever dawns. The local parties, one rooted in revolution, the other in reaction, still have an oppositionist mentality and look on  the responsibilities of government as if they have little to do with them. The basic calculation is that the absence of a return to violence is a firm enough foundation for stability, however wretched the politics.  So let’s drop the “peace process” label which implies that everything is at stake. What we have now is a failure to rise above sectarian politics to identify the common public interest. What the main parties are not ready to accept that neither will reach any nirvana without winning at least some acceptance from the other side. That requires foresight and competence rather the tactical cunning which a fourteen year old school child  can spot a mile away.

 

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