Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson: 'I am committed to dealing with the issues of victims and finding solutions'
Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson admits being 'bitterly disappointed' over the failure to make more progress on issues facing people left traumatised by the Troubles and says the Stormont House Agreement should be implemented now.
Q. Is the election good news or bad news for victims and survivors?
A. I think it's very important for people to realise that while an election period can be adversarial, behind every statement and soundbite on victims' issues there is a family who has lost someone they love. So when I sometimes hear politicians representing one section of the community say there have been no prosecutions or if people on the other hand representing the other community say the justice system is biased - there are people who have had real losses hearing those things.
Q. Are there dangers if victims' issues become a bargaining chip in the negotiations following the election?
A. Victims and survivors can become used as a political football and that can create discord when what we all need to be focused on is solutions. I agree with what a lot of the victims have said about politicians over the years - that they have brought them in for meetings and listened to them, but then all they are really offered is tea, sympathy and not a great deal else.
Q. Is there a risk the progress made in the Stormont House Agreement could recede even further?
A. The most frustrating aspect of all of this is that while we are in the run-up to an election there are proposals including the Historical Inquiries Unit (HIU) which have been sitting on the table with the Government for the last 18 months. We were told constantly that it was being worked on. But it would appear now that it hasn't been.
Q. And where are we, for example, on the proposal for a pension for victims?
A. It is shocking to me that there has been no progress on this when progress was most certainly possible. We have had inspiring leadership from groups like WAVE, but victims have been let down.
Q. You have now been in the job for coming up on 18 months. Wouldn't you have expected to make more progress by now?
A. I obviously welcome the fact that a Victims' Commissioner was appointed but I cannot introduce legislation on my own. When I was first appointed I was told that there would be legislation within two months. But that hasn't happened.
Q. So were you sold a pup?
A. No. I was bitterly disappointed but, of course, at times things that are planned do not come to fruition.
Q. So how frustrated are you - have you already considered leaving the post?
A. Absolutely not. Why would I give up just because it is difficult? I am committed to what I set out to achieve - dealing with the issues of victims and finding solutions. Those issues are not going away and neither am I.
Q. You have accused politicians of letting down victims but aren't you tarring all parties with the same brush?
A. No. I don't want to be too hard on our politicians. They have a difficult job to do and are often being criticised. But it is only by working collaboratively that they can make progress on all of this. I think fundamentally this is an issue which is far beyond a political football.
What is required is for them to implement the (Stormont House) agreement that they all signed up to. I listen to the debate, and behind what is being said all the time is the need for a new framework, which we already have in the HIU and so on.
I would remind politicians that nearly one in three people in Northern Ireland have actually had the experience of being traumatised by bereavement or being harmed - and that represents a lot of voters.
Q. But who or which in your view is most to blame?
A. I don't think it is helpful for me to look at it in that way. This is something that is far, far too important to be playing political ping pong around whose fault it might be. The only way they have achieved progress in the past is by working collaboratively. If we want political agreement - and frankly, any solution only has a chance if there is political agreement - they will have to work together again.
The other thing is that victims' groups themselves do not want me to be pointing the finger. If you go to a meeting of the Victims Forum you will find people from very different backgrounds and they are all respectful of each other's loss and what they want is an even-handed process which can work for all.
Q. What did you make of the Secretary of State James Brokenshire's decision for a 'more public phase' on victims' issues - did you understand what he meant and did you agree with it?
A. If there needs to be a public consultation on implementing the Stormont House Agreement then I have no problem with that. What I had wanted was to see the legislation, if that was being given out for consultation, or whatever they were planning to put out but in the end we didn't get either.
Q. And of course just before the collapse of Stormont we had the SoS's more recent announcement about seeking a consensus on the way forward? Yet surely the understanding was that there was already broad agreement reached (in the Stormont House Agreement)?
A. I am not convinced that full engagement (not just between the parties but between the parties and Government) has been taking place in the recent past.
Q. Is the Government hiding behind the National Security issue as a way of avoiding taking the action it needs?
A. The first half of last year was taken up with the election (in May) and Brexit, but we were then told to expect developments on the victims' issues. I believe there are solutions which have been proposed which deal with national security and that should not be an impediment.
Q. And yet just last week the Secretary of State told us there is a disproportionate focus on the Army. And surely there is a dilemma about how much sensitive information the Government and security agencies should release publicly which remains a key issue?
A. No one is suggesting that any information which could endanger a person should be put into the public domain. The head of the new HIU would have the discretion to decide what - from all the available information - should be released.
Our Lord Chief Justice (Sir Declan Morgan) inherited the coroners courts in a situation not of his making. He proposed a solution, a plan that would move things forward. But that is not the perception and people are then less confident whether something is being done.
We have also had the very reasonable response of the Director of Public Prosecutions (Barra McGrory) to criticism when in fact all his office can do is to follow the evidence put before them. I don't understand where the evidence is here. My understanding is that all of the around 2,000 cases awaiting review by the HIU are in the same position - they cannot be skewed in a particular direction.
Q. And yet we are seeing former military people being whipped up to the point where they march on the House of Commons - and are being told they should be waiting for a 'knock on the door'?
A. That is unhelpful. I don't think it is helpful that they are being given that anxiety - people who have given their time to do a job for all of us to be given the impression that their safety may have been compromised at times. Nobody is being served by this.
Q. So do you think the HIU is more important than the other bodies in the Stormont House Agreement; the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval and the Oral History Archive?
A. No, they are all of a package, they all come together.
There is also an urgency to implement the other elements of the Stormont House Agreement including the Mental Trauma Service, pension for those severely injured, advocate-counsellor support and the implementation and reconciliation group.
Q. You started off as a probation officer in north Belfast in 1984 - is that experience relevant to your role now?
A. Hugely. I wasn't coming into this job like someone from Mars but with experience of what it was like in 1985 when I worked in north Belfast and the experience of people losing loved ones and the immediate aftermath of being harmed. I went to funerals on all sides. I got close to families and I was able to understand things from different angles.
Q. What would you say you gleaned from your job (as a probation officer) in HMP Maghaberry?
A. Well, all political groupings were very visible and I got to understand them all quite a bit. Certainly I got to understand and got to know people who were victims, particularly women prisoners and some of their horrific experiences.
Q. Has that experience shown you that people convicted even of serious crime can view themselves as victims also?
A. I think it has shown me that people who have been harmed, and have also harmed others, are still the same person. That does not mean they are allowed to harm others but nor does it mean that we should ignore them. But I would have to say that the vast majority of those I represent have never harmed anybody.