I would like to thank the oFM/dFM for finally agreeing on a new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. It has been over a year since Kathryn Stone stood down from this position: a position which is an integral cog in the structures set up to deal with the needs of those of us most affected by the years of political conflict.
The Victims Commission was hamstrung by the absence of a figurehead, as was the Victims Forum. Both bodies could formulate policies, bring forward ideas and take soundings from individual victims and victims groups but they could not present them to those with the power to put any of it into effect. This was only in the gift of the Commissioner.
I wish our incoming Commissioner well. Judith Thompson is taking on a challenging job. She will be met with many demands from all quarters of the community. Victims and survivors have many different needs and wants. I would suggest that she focuses her attention on the needs rather than the wants.
There are too many wants that, in reality, may never be satisfied. The new Commissioner needs to be honest about the capabilities of this fractured post conflict society to deal with the wants of individual victims and survivors. Their wants are varied, complex and mostly filled with an highly emotional sense of injustice. Such high emotion is understandable: the harms inflicted upon this group of people have been atrocious.
We see this harm manifest itself everywhere in our society. Countless documentaries, newspaper articles, talk radio shows highlight the legacy of pain and loss. Most of the discourse is negative and is focused on the extremes. Victims are put up against other victims while many of our politicians indulge in the circular arguments of whataboutery, pointing to the pie charts of who killed the most: while an increasingly apathetic general public looks on in dismay. Who could blame them? Some of the arguments have even descended into the semantics of what we actually call the ‘Troubles’.
The incoming Commissioner needs to recognise this emotion but she also needs to look at the reality of what can be realised. She needs to stay clear of the philosophical cul-de-sacs of defining who is a terrorist and who is a victim.
Not all victims will get what they want but they should get what they need. This is where the Commission comes in. The previous Commissioner rightly shone a light on the problems faced by the Victims and Survivors Service and the Department of the oFM/dFM in delivering for a sizeable number of victims and survivors. Our new champion will need the same tenacity if she is to keep check on a slow moving bureaucracy which tries to address individual and societal need.
The so-called victims and survivors sector could also do with an introspective examination. It is often said that the thoughts and feelings of the victims are paramount and should come first when trying to deal with the past but I feel that this puts too much pressure on those who have to implement the proposed mechanisms. We victims and survivors need to realise that we should not be put on pedestals and revered; we are not precious and without faults. We are just normal members of society like everyone else. We are natural stakeholders with valid opinions but we should not have a veto over any of the structures put forward in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). Our emotional responses, no matter how loud, should not be allowed to hold the rest of society back from dealing with the past. There is too much disagreement and politicking. The new Commissioner needs to find a way of implementing what can be agreed upon and she needs to do this quickly before it is too late.
I ask our new Commissioner to oversee the implementation of the relevant sections of the SHA and to make sure that the current impasse over Welfare and the Budget is disentangled from outstanding legacy issues. Legacy issues should be and should always have been standalone issues regardless of who holds power in Stormont or Westminster. This is where our new Commissioner should shine a light and advocate: focus on what can be done now. All of the research and policy formulation is done: what we need now is action. Good luck Judith, you will need it.
Written by Paul Gallagher.
Paul was 21 when UFF gunmen burst into his home on the Stewartstown Road in west Belfast in January 1993. They were posing as the IRA and held him and his Catholic family hostage. The loyalists were using his home, he said, to launch an attack on former republican prisoners who lived nearby. Eventually the loyalists tired of waiting for the republicans and, as the gunmen fled, one of them opened fire on the family living room with a submachine gun. Paul Gallagher was riddled with six bullets, leaving him in a wheelchair. (Bio source: BBC)