Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

In the line of fire: Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone

The Victims Commissioner is no job for a shrinking violet. But nothing could have prepared Kathryn Stone for the barrage of criticism directed at her since she started, writes Alex Kane

Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone
Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone

Last November, a few weeks after she had been appointed to the post, Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone refused to be drawn on whether she believed the perpetrators of violence should be treated as victims.

"I have no political baggage, I have no political affiliation. There is a very real argument that everyone who has lived through the Troubles is a victim. I don't come down on either side. I come down on the side of individual victims," she said.

"My job is to serve them, to advocate for them, to be a voice for victims and that is what I am going to do. I do not consider my job to be a fudge, I consider my job to be hugely important and a very real privilege."

So it shouldn't really have come as a surprise to anyone when, last week, she refused to be drawn on whether or not she viewed the IRA and UVF as terrorists. She could have referred the interviewer to the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives the legal definition and lists both organisations as 'proscribed,' but he would almost certainly have come back again with "so do you, personally, regard them as terrorists?"

Had she said yes, that would have opened up a whole new debate about perpetrators and victims, a debate she had already closed down almost a year earlier. And had she said no, she would have invited a barrage of criticism from unionists and some victims' groups.

In other words, it was an almost impossible question for her to answer without offending one side or the other. Indeed, her refusal to give a direct answer – her personal opinion – drew fire from the TUV, UUP and victims' groups anyway, along with calls for her resignation.

Her dilemma when it comes to the definitions – legal, or personal – of emotive words like victim (many people don't even regard anyone with a terrorist background or link as a victim), or terrorist (many former paramilitaries and their supporters refuse to describe themselves as such) goes with the territory of being the Victims Commissioner.

You cannot please everyone. You cannot hope to please everyone. Ironically, being caught in the crossfire between both sides would probably allow her to describe herself as a victim now.

Kathryn Stone was born in Derby in 1963 and has a younger brother – she describes him as the "successful one in the family" – who now runs Plantscape, a company specialising in plant display, landscape services and interior/exterior plant displays for special and corporate events.

Her father, a former member of the RAF, was a florist and the family lived above a flower shop. Her parents also ran the corner shop which was "literally open all hours, but only in the morning on Christmas Day".

According to Stone, "lots of people came in from a 'doss house' down the road and I was always fascinated and a bit scared of them. But my Mum was always respectful and kind to everyone. She has been very saddened by recent things said about me."

Her grandfather, to whom she was very close, was a policeman: "I developed a very strong sense of right and wrong from him, although policing in rural Derbyshire was nothing like Northern Ireland".

Her first school was the local High Street Infants, where she hated the free school milk so much – she says it always tasted sour – that she still prefers to have juice, or water on her cereal.

She then attended Belper High School, "a very different school for its time. There were no uniforms, teachers were called by their first names and there were no playgrounds, just common rooms with sofas and carpets. There was an expectation of community participation and demonstration of social responsibility which instilled in me a very strong sense of duty to society and helping those who are disadvantaged."

She went to London to do a degree in sociology and social work, spending many weekends and holidays in children's homes, day centres, old people's homes and secure units: "Anywhere and everywhere with people, always with people, listening to and learning from people."

She graduated in 1985 and followed up with a Masters from Loughborough College. She began a PhD but gave it up after two years when the combination of a full-time job in child-protection and a baby and toddler proved too much.

She is married to Gray, a writer, journalist and trainer. They have three children: Conor (22) a drama student: Maisie (19 and with chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME) a photographer; and Bella (11) "who wants to be an actor, or an architect, or a marine biologist".

Before taking up her post as Victims Commissioner she was chief executive of Voice UK, a national learning disability charity, promoting justice and well being for vulnerable victims.

In 2007, she was awarded an OBE for services to people with learning disabilities: "I thought it was a formal letter from the Inland Revenue so I didn't actually read it until later in the evening." Over the years, she worked very closely with police forces across the UK on a range of issues, including hate crime against disabled people. She was involved in the investigation into the fire that killed the six children of the Philpott family in Derby: "three adults were given long sentences. It was justice for society, but too late for the children".

With that sort of background, she seems tailor-made for the role of Victims Commissioner, bringing with her a deep knowledge of the physical and psychological pain which accompanies those who have been hurt and scarred by events and experiences beyond their control.

She also brings with her – and many people, including Ann Travers have mentioned it – an ability to listen carefully rather than merely judge. Being an 'outsider' also helps, because it allows her to talk without bringing any local baggage to the conversation.

She also loves cars. "My dream car would be a Maserati Gran Turismo, navy blue with cream leather seats. My very good friend who is a police officer recently said 'I know we taught you defensive driving (again, it goes with the territory in Northern Ireland), but you don't need to drive like that all the time.' Harsh, but probably fair!"

But she has been hurt by events of the last couple of weeks. "I very much regret that my necessarily neutral stance has been interpreted in some quarters as it has been. I completely and unequivocally condemn all forms of violence by any group or individual. Anyone who breaks the law must be brought before the law. I have recently been criticised for living here! I would be damned if I didn't, so very odd to be damned for doing so."

Stone's background, upbringing and career suggest that's she's not someone who is easily put off by criticism, particularly if she regards it as unjustified.

The job of Victims Commissioner was never going to be a job for a shrinking violet, or someone incapable of lifting what many regard as a poisoned chalice.

The very fact that she seems to recognise that she will not be able to please everyone – particularly some of her 'political' critics – is probably the best qualification she has for the job: along with her unshakeable view that "Northern Ireland is a beautiful place with fantastic people, who deserve peace and prosperity".

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