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Local remedies to legacy issues and unmet needs of victims must be a priority

By John Simpson

Every day hundreds of people living in Northern Ireland waken up to cope with serious problems, financial constraints, physical disabilities and mental incapacities which are all an inheritance of what we call the Troubles. 

The convenient comfort for some is that mercifully we now have a better life because of the impact of the efforts to maintain the peace process. No comparisons can be easily or comfortably made but, in areas living with elements of relative disadvantage, can there be much dispute that a generation of survivors is coping with serious damage to their lifestyles?

The formal estimate by the Commission for Victims and Survivors is that more than 268,000 people have been or are directly affected enough to require the special services or personal support. This group is large and will expect some acknowledgement for years to come.

Efforts to ameliorate the inherited tensions and offer careful help and guidance are on the agenda. However, the agenda has been realised only partially, slowly and inadequately. There is an inadequate appreciation of the continuing scale of disadvantage from the Troubles across the full local community. The conscience for the community is being exercised by the many, often informal, voluntary organisations linked to helping victims and survivors.

The scale of the legacy of the Troubles is not widely discussed and is appreciated even less.

The scale of the legacy can be assessed in contrasting ways which, in turn, reflect the different pieces of evidence.  At one end of the spectrum there is the still unfinished business of an acceptable (not over generous) pension-type supplement where injured people are living with poorer incomes because their disability has made them less able to do what they might have done to prepare and save for their later years. 

There is an acknowledged gap in the way people have been compensated (if at all) and what might be reasonably expected.

Estimates from the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors are that this additional pensions stream might help about 500 people and cost nearly £2.5m each year.

That supplementary pensions stream is only a part of the spectrum of unmet needs.  The needs have been assessed in terms of a range of health, legal and personal services. 

Frequently, and too glibly, comments on the wide-ranging legacy of the Troubles are understated and oversimplified.

The professional assessment supports an opinion that up to 500,000 people (directly and indirectly) are living with some consequences of violence, social instability and personal disadvantage.

There is, of course, the argument that as a community we have done this to ourselves, although that will always be challenged by the voices that place responsibility on the ‘other ones’. 

Whatever the causation, local remedies must be developed.

There is a telling inheritance for the local politicians and potential ministers in the failure of the Fresh Start Agreement, launched early in 2016, to accept and implement a series of non-controversial steps to ease the legacy questions. 

Currently, the public sector is spending nearly £80m per year inadequately tackling the immediate problems, particularly in health and judicial services.

In anticipation of the Fresh Start, there was an agreement that, spread over the next few years, about £150m more should be earmarked for these challenges.

Judith Thompson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, has confidence that the proposed measures would make significant improvements in the caring arrangements but regrets that implementation has been delayed.

The priorities to improve the delivery of services are: (1) the implementation of steps to tackle legal issues related to the legacy of the past; (2) extended mental health trauma services; (3) approval of the supplementary pensions scheme, and;  (4) improved integration of work with the voluntary and community organisations already offering dedicated services.

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