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Victims are being let down by wait for commissioner, ministers warned

By Noel McAdam

Published 20/07/2015

Major challenge: Oliver Wilkinson, the new chairman of the Victims and Survivors Service
Major challenge: Oliver Wilkinson, the new chairman of the Victims and Survivors Service

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have been warned it is "absolutely essential" a new Victims Commissioner is appointed - after a gap of more than a year.

The new chair of the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) has sounded alarm bells that the lack of a commissioner is causing the victims' sector to "fracture".

Oliver Wilkinson said many of the almost 70 groups who represent around 12,000 victims are beginning to go off "in different directions".

Several people have resigned in recent months from the 22-strong Victims Forum and only a new commissioner can replace them.

The VSS, which previous Commissioner Kathryn Stone condemned two years ago as "unfit for purpose", is dealing with an average of 1,000 calls from victims and survivors of the Troubles every week.

In addition, an average of 500 people call in to its new offices at Seatem House in Alfred Street in Belfast every month.

The office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister had said an appointment to replace Mrs Stone should be made this month.

In a lengthy interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Wilkinson said: "It is absolutely essential that an appointment is made as soon as possible. The longer we go on without one, the more fractured the victims' community is becoming. Victims need the opportunity to put their fears, concerns, anxieties and hopes forward and they need a strong champion who can do that and bring their message to politicians.

"Without that, there are groups who are heading off in different directions.

"The difficulty is that she (Kathryn Stone) built up a very good reputation and there were huge expectations among people which fell when she left. I can understand there is a process to be gone through and it is important to get the right person. But, for example, the Victims Forum has had people leave it and we need a Victims Commissioner to appoint new people to it. Some people have left who cannot be very easily replaced."

Mr Wilkinson (59), who was appointed to the VSS board before being made its chair recently, said many people in Northern Ireland would prefer to draw a line under the past.

"I think there was an expectation that with the Good Friday Agreement, victims would begin to come forward and by 20 or so years afterwards their needs and issues would be addressed - but they haven't been," he said.

"There are a lot of people out there for whom this does not impact on their day and daily lives and they are not particularly exercised about it and perhaps some feel it should be left in the past.

"It's too difficult and therefore they just don't want to even get into it.

"But there are many people struggling on a day and daily basis and it does impact on them and they have needs which have to be met.

"There is no getting away from that. And they are part of our overall community, we can't avoid them, we can't put them in a box."

Mrs Stone stood down from the post in early summer last year, just over 18 months after her appointment.

Belfast Telegraph

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