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'For five years after the bomb I was full of hatred, I lost my leg, my home... now I fight for all victims of the Troubles, they're no different from me'

By Allan Preston

Awarded an MBE in the latest New Year Honours list, victims' campaigner Alex Bunting (62) talks about his journey from losing his leg in 1991 when the IRA planted a bomb in his taxi, coming back from the brink of suicide to help others and how Martin McGuinness finally convinced him to shake his hand.

Q. Congratulations on your MBE, what does it mean to you?

A. It's an honour and a privilege, I was very shocked to get the letter six weeks before and was told it was confidential, almost like a secret service type of thing. You can't even tell your family.

My family and the colleagues I campaign with are very proud.

Without the support of my wife Linda, who to me is my hero, I would not have been able to achieve what I have up to now.

Politicians from all sides also congratulated me but it's a team effort, I'm only an ordinary working-class guy doing it because I think it's right.

Q. You were approached to sit on the victims' forum in 2008. What was that like?

A. I found that quite daunting - you were across the room from perpetrators, people who caused some of the atrocities of the past. There was a mix of the security services and people from the IRA, but it got to the stage where I thought 'this is good, you can get your point across here', trying to make compromise.

I definitely saw more sides of the argument. If you were from the unionist community you saw terrorists - be they IRA, loyalist or whatever - who were causing it all, then you get to hear about things like collusion and shoot-to-kill which was never on your radar.

Behind everything that happened there's always a story, a family. If you sit down and talk to people on a one-to-one basis regardless of their religion - who were shot or had people killed - they're no different from me or you.

Q. One of your main aims has been to secure a pension for those severely injured in the Troubles. Tell me about that.

A. People might imagine it's a lot of people because of the 40 years of conflict we had, but it's not.

A survey from Surrey University found there were 500 severely injured people in Northern Ireland, with 10 people categorised as perpetrators.

Maybe a bomb went off and they lost their arms, or they went out to attack someone and ended up shot by a police officer.

You lobby the DUP and they're not willing to give this small amount of severely injured people that pension.

Sinn Fein say 'it's everybody or nobody, we're not leaving our comrades on the battlefield'.

These 10 people are a red line for both major parties.

I say it's for the greater good, if you have 10 people stopping 490 getting help I don't think it's right.

What politicians have done is hold us to ransom, they never do what's best for us.

They'll come back and say £32 million is being put into victims and survivors over the next few years.

But most of that goes to the running costs of around 66 groups across Northern Ireland. Then you're left with around £4 million to actually go to victims. Last I heard, there was around 6,500 on their books. It's not a great deal of money when you're trying to help people.

Q. Was there a moment in your campaigning you are most proud of?

A. Every time I go into a room and I'm speaking on behalf of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland I feel very proud.

I see everyone I represent as victims of the conflict regardless of the track they come from. Achievements for me would be getting funding for victims, helping them to get wheelchairs, lifts, physiotherapy, etc. Nobody bothered before 1998.

Q. What do you remember about being hurt in 1991?

A. I remember everything. I was going to work in my taxi about six in the morning to cover early jobs like lifts to hospitals.

There were two jobs, one to pick up schoolchildren, the other was a woman going to the York hotel to work as a receptionist.

I picked up the receptionist first, and she gave me dogs abuse because she was late for work.

I remember going along Durham Street (close to Sandy Row), the next thing was an almighty flash.

In the next split second, boom, the bomb went off.

I was conscious, my left leg was blown up in two parts. I remember it went out the door and I went out behind it.

I remember noise, it felt like slow motion, it was like getting blown out of a cannon.

I remember hitting the ground, people were squealing, windows and glass coming down on top of me.

I remember thinking, I'm dead, my legs have been blown up. My hand was sore, one of my fingers came off and it was like a water pistol with blood squirting in my face. These things stick in your head.

Next thing this guy came up to me. I said, 'there's a woman in the car, I think she's dead'.

First thing that came into my mind was my wife and children, what are they going to do without me?

Luckily, there was a doctor behind me going to work at the City Hospital where I was about five minutes away from.

There was an Army foot patrol who gave me field dressings straight away. Within 11 minutes of the bomb I was in the hospital theatre.

So I count myself very lucky, as doctors told me my chances of survival were a million to one.

In July last year I had a bit of shrapnel taken out from behind my knee. I'm still waiting for an operation on the stump on my left leg as I suffer from phantom pain.

At night time I can still feel my leg being itchy, other times I can imagine the pain of the explosion and it really is unbearable.

The only way to alleviate it is to cut the nerve endings back. It's a two-year waiting list to get this operation - I'm just like everyone else, having to wait on the NHS.

Q. After a year in hospital you struggled to adjust to a normal life. What was that like?

A. I went through a period of deep depression. Unbeknownst to me, that was post-traumatic stress.

I'd lost my business, my home because I couldn't pay for it and the government didn't help.

I felt 'I'm no longer a man here'. I wanted to provide, go on holidays and make sure my kids were educated - what everyone else aspires to do.

I did at one stage think 'this is not worth it,' I felt like diving off a cliff. I felt myself being a burden on my whole family and I wasn't a nice guy.

I had PTSD, the woman in the taxi was injured and I had survivor's guilt. I didn't realise these things were happening to me. There was no one there to counsel you. You were just patted on the head.

My youngest son developed epilepsy - he actually saw me getting me blown up. He was coming past on the bus to school. It affected him, it's not something you talk about around the dinner table.

I called Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the Shankill bomb.

He asked me along to a meeting, I kept going and didn't say a word for three weeks. Next thing, I was listening to the stories of other people, I felt I could relate to that as it happened to me. I found my voice.

Q. You've forgiven your attackers. Did it take a long time?

A. There was a period of about five years where I was full of hatred. Why did they do this to me? I wasn't hurting anybody.

I had a moment where I felt better off out of this world, wanting to kill myself.

My wife said to me, 'you've come through an awful lot, we've stuck by you and you're getting on like this'. I had a hard look at myself and made a conscious decision and said I can't hate people any more as it's destroying me.

I decided I wouldn't hate the people who did this. A weight did get lifted off my shoulders and I felt better. Even to this day I would go anywhere to speak to anyone.

I remember a meeting in Stormont with the victims' commission. I was speaking in front of the First and Deputy First Minister - Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness at the time. I was talking to one of the Sinn Fein special advisers, then I felt a pat on the shoulder.

I was told: "This is Martin." He put his hand out but I said no.

I said: "I have to say this to you because it's the way I am. You blew me up."

He replied: "To be honest, I didn't blow you up."

I continued: 'No, but your organisation did, you blew me up. You did this to my family and destroyed our lives'.

He said: "That may be true. But I'm here to change things, to lead from the front, to help people like you in our local community regardless of where they come from. Whether you believe me or disbelieve me it's up to you, but there's my hand."

I said "right, fair enough" and I shook his hand. I said 'I'll hold you to your word'.

He said his door would always be open to me. I'm sure he's sorry he said that because I had him tortured after that. The same with Peter Robinson.

Certain people within the forum from a security force background that day turned their backs on McGuinness because that's how they feel.

But I'll talk to anyone if it means I get what I want for victims, that's my job.

Q. After pushing for political agreement on things like the victims' pension, what do you make of the recent turmoil in Stormont?

A. I have to say, for the last 10 years it has been politicians that have stopped things happening for victims because they can't agree. It's a failure that the peace process has been stalled in every way.

It's an absolute disgrace for them to play us like a political football and to wheel us in or out when it suits them.

When this election starts they'll say anything, but are they doing enough for victims, no, they're not.

They'll say they give over £10 million a year to victims' services, that's not what it's about. If you want proper lasting peace, let's get round a table together. The Troubles are over so let's move on as a society.

Q. Any new year's resolutions?

A. I'm not making any as I always break them. I'd love to lose a bit of weight and be in better health. All I would pray for is that they get the institutions up and running again and address the issues that suit all of the population of Northern Ireland.

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