Unionists hail Eames 'U-turn' over the definition of a victim
Retired Church of Ireland Primate Lord Eames has reportedly told the Church of Ireland Gazette, that the definition of a victim of Troubles-era violence should be changed to exclude people who were involved in illegal activity.
This would be a reversal of the position that the former Archbishop adopted in the 2009 report on the Consultative Group on the Past which he co-authored with Denis Bradley, the former Catholic priest and peace process mediator.
Last night both main unionist parties welcomed the apparent change of heart.
Mr Bradley said he wanted to meet the cleric to "clarify his comments".
In their report they had proposed a legacy payment of £12,000 to the relatives of all victims, whether they were paramilitaries or not.
The report said that to continue debating the definition issue would be "both fruitless and self-defeating".
The suggestion of an automatic payout infuriated unionists and many victims as the families of paramilitaries and people involved in violence could receive the money.
The issue of defining victims largely led to the shelving of the report with its two authors standing by their conclusions.
Lord Eames discussed the issue of the definition of a victim with Canon Ian Ellis, the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette.
Canon Ellis took notes and wrote an article based on their conversation.
It states: "Former Primate Lord Eames has told the Gazette he believes that the statutory definition of a victim during the Northern Ireland Troubles needs to take account of the distinction between those who were engaged in lawful activity and those who were engaged in unlawful activity."
It continues: "He told us that, 'despite the difficulties in drafting', the distinction should be made and he revealed that he had 'argued the point with politicians frequently' and had discussed drafting problems, including those around the term 'victim' with civil servants."
Changing the definition of victim has been a long standing demand of the DUP, UUP and TUV as well as some victims' groups such as Innocent Victims United.
All argue that people who were engaged in illegal violence cannot be considered innocent victims.
Innocent Victims United, which has spearheaded the campaign for change, maintains that anyone who was involved in illegal violence either before or after they suffered injury or death cannot be considered a victim for legal purposes.
This issue was one of the main sticking points in the Haass talks on flags, parading and the past which stalled last winter.
It will feature in new talks between the five Executive parties which start today.
Last night a Church of Ireland spokeswoman said that Lord Eames was abroad and was not available for comment.
She added: "Obviously he is aware of the article."
As reported, Lord Eames does not go so far as Innocent Victims United.
The Gazette states: "Lord Eames has indicated that he believes that the definition of a victim in the Victims and Survivor Order (2006) needs to be changed in order to distinguish between those who were engaged in lawful activity and those who were engaged in unlawful activity."
The suggestion is that someone who was injured or killed while, for instance, planting a bomb would not be a victim, but someone who was injured or bereaved by violence and later became involved in a paramilitary organisation could still be a victim.
Story so far
The Eames/Bradley report into dealing with the past was shelved in 2009, after an outcry at its plan for payments to victims and a perceived moral equivalence between victims and perpetrators of violence. One co-author Lord Eames has now apparently reversed his former position that all those injured or killed in the Troubles should be treated equally.
Move that may open up a can of worms
In Friday's edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette, its editor argues that the current definition “suggests a ‘moral equivalence' between, for example, members of paramilitary organisations and police officers or soldiers, drawing no distinction between those who were engaged in lawful activity and those whose actions were unlawful; a bomber injured by his or her own bomb would be as much a victim as passersby who also were injured”.
Unionists think this too.
The DUP has tried to change the definition at Westminster and will try again to do so through legislation at either Westminster or Stormont, according to the party's victims' spokesman Jeffrey Donaldson.
“I welcome the comment made by Lord Eames,” Mr Donaldson said.
He added: “If it is morally indefensible to equate the innocent victims of terrorism with terrorist perpetrators then it adds weight to our argument that the definition of a victim needs to be changed.”
Many will agree.
Yet finding a new definition could well be a can of worms.
Things are relatively clear-cut when someone dies planting a bomb or taking part in a gunfight, but these are rare cases in what was a complicated conflict.
It is more common for someone injured or bereaved in the Troubles to join a paramilitary group as a result of their experiences and loss.
Would they cease to be victims?
And what about a member of one paramilitary group who is ambushed and murdered by a rival terrorist gang while doing nothing wrong?
Everyone will have opinions on the rights and wrongs of such cases but, with talks starting today, it will be next to impossible to get broad agreement on them.
Lord Eames may have been thinking of such issues when he referred to “drafting problems”.
The Gazette quotes him only briefly and he is now abroad.
When he returns it will be interesting to hear his views in more detail.