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Impasse over Troubles pensions tough issue to resolve

As long as the legal definition of a 'victim' is anyone who has suffered through the Troubles, it is difficult to see how Sinn Fein and the DUP can ever see eye to eye over the payment of a 'victim's pension', says Malachi O'Doherty.

A simple, generous idea has the potential to drive a wedge into one of the fault lines of Northern Ireland politics. That idea is that injured victims of the Troubles should receive a pension to help them cope.

The idea is supported by the former Victims' Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, and ostensibly by the First and deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

The logic behind it is that several people who were seriously injured during the Troubles did not receive adequate compensation at the time and were not able to work and pay into private pension schemes that would have helped them in old age.

There were several examples of people in this position featured on last week's BBC Spotlight programme, including Jennifer McNern, who lost both legs in the 1972 IRA bombing of the Abercorn Bar in Castle Lane, Belfast.

There should be little difficulty in defining who is entitled to this pension, if it is ever made available. The definition of a victim in law is anyone who has suffered through the Troubles. There is no hierarchy of victims allowed for in law, no distinction between those who were perpetrators of violence and those who were only ever on the receiving end. But few - if any - really accept that definition.

Even those who argue that there must be no hierarchy, like republicans, clearly tell their story from the perspective that others are more to blame than themselves.

Peter Robinson has already said he would not be "putting my hand to any proposal that is going to reward those engaged in terrorism".

The proposal for a pension for victims is currently going through a consultation process in the Assembly and Mr Robinson has enthusiastically endorsed the idea that such a pension should be paid.

He accepts most, if not all, of the standard arguments in favour of it; that compensation in the past was inadequate, for instance, but that one precondition, that "those that have been engaged in terrorism" should not be rewarded may be sufficient to stymie the whole plan.

Martin McGuinness does not accept that he was a terrorist when he was leading the IRA in Londonderry. He does not accept that members of the IRA who were injured while attempting to kill, or injure, others are any less victims of the Troubles than those they were attacking.

And many of those republicans and other paramilitaries who were injured, suffered their injuries while they were not, at that moment, trying to kill anyone else. Some of them were shot while going about the ordinary business of life - between operations, as it were.

The principle that activists should not be compensated is already in place. Whenever people were shot, or injured by a bomb, and sometimes when they were targeted, though not injured, their compensation was paid on the grounds that they were entitled to protection from the police and had not received it.

Several people were refused compensation on the grounds that they had drawn violence to themselves; were active in armed conflict. This only applied to activists who had been convicted in the courts, however.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey was attacked and later targeted by loyalists under the direction of the agent Brian Nelson, using Army intelligence about him.

Nelson spotted Maskey in the Chester Park Hotel on the Antrim Road in north Belfast one night in the late-1980s and tried to set up an ambush on him. The plan failed. Maskey left the hotel knowing nothing about it, yet - as he told me himself - he received compensation of £15,000.

Membership of Sinn Fein and even a life of eagerly endorsing the IRA is not in itself a bar to ordinary compensation.

It is hard to see how agreement can be reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP on the payment of a pension to victims when the DUP contests the legal definition of a victim.

Their position is supported by some of the most eloquent campaigners for the rights of victims of the Troubles.

Ann Travers' sister, Mary, was killed and her father wounded in a two-man IRA ambush in 1983, which the Historical Enquiries Team determined was an effort to wipe out her whole family.

She was not with her father leaving church that Sunday morning when the gunmen struck. Her mother survived because one of the guns jammed.

Her father, at that time, was due to resume hearing the trial of Gerry Adams and others for disorderly behaviour, that trial having been disrupted by an ambush on Adams and the others during a lunch-break adjournment.

Adams was himself refused compensation because he had a prior conviction, for attempting to escape from internment; hardly a serious crime in itself.

The current status of the victim as anyone who has suffered during the Troubles derives from the understanding enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement that we went through a conflict which was a legacy of history. By one easy inference, no one of this generation can be blamed for that.

Yet the legal status of paramilitary violence as criminal still stands. There is a contradiction there.

Ann Travers says: "Terrorists should not get a special payment from the state. The compassionate side of me says they mustn't be abandoned by the welfare state and their needs must be met. However, those with the 'hidden' severe psychological trauma must not be forgotten about, either."

The same point was made by Raymond McCord last week at a seminar marking the 40th anniversary of Harmony Community Trust at Glebe House.

So far, the discussion around injured victims has focused just on the physically injured and estimates have suggested that there are 300 of these, including 10 former paramilitaries. But, clearly, there is potential for the number to grow.

The claim for those with psychological damage to be included would be hard to argue against and, if refused, would be a blow to all those who campaign for the proper consideration of mental illness.

Then, there may be a lot of others with physical injuries who would come forward if the prospects of a pension were realised. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men were wounded in so-called "punishment" shootings. Some of them were refused compensation because they had convictions; many received payments, but had all, or part, of them confiscated by the paramilitaries who shot them. They are Troubles victims.

But then, one might argue, why should I be denied a similar pension, if my injuries were caused by some other type of criminal? What's so special about the Troubles?

If I have been crippled by a drunk driver, I am no less crippled than if the damage was caused by a bomb, or a bullet.

This is not going to be easy to sort out.

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