Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Will we ever agree who is a victim...and who isn't?

Changed status: it took many years for killing of Bloody Sunday victims to be deemed unlawful
Changed status: it took many years for killing of Bloody Sunday victims to be deemed unlawful

Are all victims innocent? Do you need to be blameless, or a good person, to be called a victim or can you be one simply because you have suffered? Can you be a victim one day and lose the status the next? Or vice versa?

Those are philosophical questions but, thanks to tireless campaigning by Innocent Victims United (IVU), they are now live political issues which will loom large in the Haass talks next month as we attempt to deal with the legacy of the troubles.

IVU is a coalition of 14 groups which launched a "Charter of Innocent Victims" in April. One objective was to halt the building of the Maze Peace and reconciliation centre. Now that has been achieved, their next objective is to secure a definition of victim which excludes those involved in paramilitary or illegal activity.

With the backing of the UUP, TUV and Orange Order they shifted the DUP into a U turn on its previous support of the Maze project. Earlier this week, with a minimum of fanfare, the DUP bought into the remainder of the charter. "We stand absolutely in support of all issues within the charter which still require action to be resolved," said Jonathan Bell, the DUP junior minister who deals with the victims issue in OFMDFM along with Jennifer McCann of Sinn Fein, a former IRA member sentenced to 20 years for shooting an RUC officer.

They don't see eye to eye on the past, but co-operation has so far been based on a legal definition of a "victim or survivor" as "someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident". It also includes carers or dependents of someone who has been traumatised through witnessing an incident. That includes members of paramilitary groups and their families, but it gets more complicated. Earlier this year, Kenny Donaldson, a spokesman for IVU, agreed that many people joined paramilitaries because they had a relative killed or were themselves attacked. He believed that they were initially victims but lost that status once they turned to violence.

In May, Stormont passed a UUP motion supporting a EU definition of a victim of crime as "a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering or economic loss, directly caused by acts or omissions that are in violation of the criminal law."

So, by this reckoning, someone who was in a paramilitary group, or who later joined one, could still be a victim if he or she was illegally attacked, say by rival terrorists. But it would initially exclude people, like the Ballymurphy families, whose loved ones had been shot by the security forces. Yet such people could gain victim status years later, if it was eventually found that the use of force had been unlawful. That happened to the Bloody Sunday relatives.

Everyone has a gut feeling on what the word "victim" means, but trying to pin the term down in law could paralyse politics here.

It may well prove impossible to get the agreement necessary to move beyond the current unsatisfactory legal definition.

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