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Fury as Dawn Purvis runs for Victims Commissioner post

By Brian Rowan

Published 01/05/2015

After loyalist decommissioning announcement: Dawn Purvis flanked by leading loyalists Billy Hutchinson (left) and Winston Rea (right) and the announcement in June 2009 by the UVF and the Red Hand Commando that they would be putting their weapons beyond use
After loyalist decommissioning announcement: Dawn Purvis flanked by leading loyalists Billy Hutchinson (left) and Winston Rea (right) and the announcement in June 2009 by the UVF and the Red Hand Commando that they would be putting their weapons beyond use
With the First Lady: A photo opportunity with Hillary Clinton during a presidential visit to Belfast
Ervine's successor: Posing with a David Ervine poster and a PUP colleague at the 2007 election count
Assembly leader: Opening her constituency office in east Belfast in September 2010
Mourning Gusty Spence: Dawn at the funeral of the former UVF leader in September 2011
With Ahern and Adams: At a gathering with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to mark the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement
Marie Stopes director: She recently stepped down after three years as head of the family planning advice clinic

Former loyalist political leader Dawn Purvis is in the running to become Northern Ireland's new Victims Commissioner, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The news comes just days after Ms Purvis announced her decision to leave her job as Programme Director of the Marie Stopes Clinic.

Interviews for Victims Commissioner, with a salary of £75,000, will take place over two full days next Thursday and Friday, suggesting a sizeable field of applicants.

But the revelation that the former PUP leader is on the shortlist for the victims post is sure to cause controversy. Already the fathers of two UVF victims have spoken out against any possibility that Ms Purvis would be appointed.

John Allen, whose son John (31) was murdered in 2003, said it was "definitely not appropriate". Raymond McCord, whose son was killed in 1997, said: "This is a nightmare for victims of the UVF."

In June 2010 Ms Purvis resigned as leader of the Progressive Unionist Party just days after the UVF murdered loyalist Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road.

At the time, she said she was leaving "with a very heavy heart", but added: "I can no longer offer leadership to a political party which is expected to answer for the indefensible actions of others."

For decades the PUP has had political links to the UVF and closely-associated Red Hand Commando.

Ms Purvis became leader of the party after the sudden death of David Ervine in 2007.

The post of Victims Commissioner has been vacant since Kathryn Stone announced her decision to resign this time last year and left in June.

She will be back in Northern Ireland next week as part of the interviewing panel.

Interviews were held last year and two candidates - both women - were deemed appointable.

The post was subsequently re-advertised with an enhanced salary. First Minister Peter Robinson said they wanted to try to widen the pool of appointable candidates.

Former commissioner and current Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt told this newspaper that "it's incredibly important" that the post is filled.

On the delay, he told the Belfast Telegraph: "It sends out a really bad signal that this is in the 'too difficult to manage' folder. It sends out a signal to victims almost that you are an impossible group to represent."

He pointed to the work of the Victims Forum which has representation from very different backgrounds and experiences and to agreements reached "in significant and divisive areas".

"That's the beacon to follow," he said.

The Forum works alongside the Victims Commisioner.

The two women deemed appointable after last year's interviews for commissioner remain in the race. They do not have to be re-interviewed.

The latest interviews planned for next week come months after the proposals in the Stormont House Agreement aimed at shaping a structured process to address the past.

They include a new Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, an Implementation and Reconciliation Group, an archive and proposals on acknowledgement and dealing with victims needs.

Part of what is being considered is a specific pension for those severely disabled during the conflict years.

But political battles are still being fought over the very definition of victim, and it is against this background of continuing arguments and the process of building a structure to deal with the past that the search for the next Victims Commissioner continues.

There are suggestions from a number of sources that more applicants are being interviewed this time round, and the two full days of interviewing next week would seem to confirm this.

Full details have not emerged about those who are now in the race, but several sources have confirmed that Ms Purvis will be interviewed.

Ms Purvis declined to comment about her application when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph.She is currently chair of the Board of the Healing Through Remembering project and sits on the David Ervine Foundation.

Profile: A steely campaigner and a politician unafraid of controversy

After two decades in public life, Dawn Purvis remains a controversial figure.

From walking out on the UVF-linked PUP to facing down anti-abortion campaigners on the streets of Belfast, she has never been afraid to go against the tide of popular opinion.

Born in South Belfast, Purvis (48) left school at 16 and joined the PUP in the mid-1990s.

“I didn’t have a political bone in my body. I didn’t even know what a manifesto was,” she once recalled.

Purvis returned to education and took a degree in women’s studies, social policy and social anthropology.

However, it was clear that she was destined for a life in politics and, having risen through the PUP, she became leader following the death of David Ervine in 2007.

She has also been a long-term advocate of extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Today’s disclosure may cause headlines, perhaps controversy, but flak is nothing new to Purvis. Indeed, as director of the Marie Stopes Clinic, she has met the mounting outrage of anti-abortion lobbyists with steely calm.

Protesters held demonstrations outside the clinic when it opened in Belfast in 2012.

Previously, in 2006, after being appointed to the Policing Board, she stood firm against DUP objections.

Then in 2010 she resigned as leader of the PUP following the UVF murder of Bobby Moffett. Ms Purvis left the party saying that she could not defend the indefensible and the UVF were more trouble than they were worth.

In the 2011 Assembly election she ran as an independent, going up against PUP leader Brian Ervine, but lost her seat to Alliance.

More recently she has tried her hand as a playwright.One of her works  — set during the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike — was performed at the Grand Opera House last year.

Belfast Telegraph

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