Victims and Survivors Service chair Oliver Wilkinson: 'There is no template in the world for the victims work we are doing'
Two years after it was slammed as 'unfit for purpose', the new chairman of the Victims and Survivors Service tells Noel McAdam the organisation is finding its feet and beginning to meet the real needs of hundreds of people in Northern Ireland, dealing with 1,000 calls every week.
Q. With hindsight, how did the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) get into such an absolute mess?
A. We don't want to deny that we are coming from a difficult past. There would be no point. People know that.
I think it is two things - one is that there is no template for doing what it is that we do.
How do you set up a service for victims and survivors after 40 years and thereafter of outrageous violence? People didn't know how to do it but ours was an honest attempt.
And also we were bringing together the Memorial Fund and the Community Relations Council element and bringing them into a third organisation and, as anyone with an understanding of management structures will tell you, it is very difficult to do that and expect things to go smoothly.
And when you are doing work and it is the case that it is failing, then people begin looking for individuals or groups to blame and the VSS was right there. It was a very easy target.
Q. Are you saying you were targeted unfairly?
A. No, I am not. The VSS did get it wrong. We were not getting our communications with individuals right and we have to own up to that.
There were people who have said that when they rang up there was no answer or they were treated discourteously or what was promised to them was not delivered.
Q. And the last Victims Commissioner (Kathryn Stone) then said that the VSS was not fit for purpose - wasn't that excruciating?
A. In some ways it was the best thing that could have happened. If she had not been as blunt as that we might have struggled on for another period, doing our best but not facing up to what was necessary.
As I said, there was and is no template in the world for what we were doing, it was experimenting and trial and error and the organisation was not ideally working as it should have been.
Q. She told MLAs that the VSS was making some victims "feel like beggars" and that some people were being retraumatised as a result of contacting the organisation. How did that make you feel?
A. I can remember when Sir Kenneth Bloomfield produced the first report on victims (1988) which said that meeting the needs of victims and survivors would be a painful privilege. When I heard that on the one hand I knew this has to be a painful privilege for me but it must not be and cannot possibly be allowed to be traumatic for people who have already suffered far too much.
I never questioned what (Commissioner) Kathryn said, we just accepted it and knew we would have to do things better.
And one of the good things about Northern Ireland is that people will tell you what they think - before they make you a cup of tea!
The sad bit is when you see that there are people in a position where it is almost impossible to put things right for them - individuals who have lost a family member, for example. How do you put that right ?
Q. Yet there was then an independent review which made more than 50 recommendations critical of VSS which were accepted by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister without question.
A. It was. At that point the new VSS board had just been put in place and we were glad to see the report and those 50 recommendations. We had just been appointed and within a month we had that report. It gave us a basis from which we could work.
Q. But haven't you still a credibility gap? How do you convince people that VSS now has the strategic leadership which that report said it lacked?
A. I think it is better now but I know that you are only as good as the work you did last week. The area we are working in is so difficult and complex and anyone who has been involved in it will admit that.
There is no template in the world.
This is something in which Northern Ireland has taken the lead and has been highly innovative. Other countries have dealt with their victims issues by ignoring them. But Northern Ireland has been highly innovative and I think other parts of the world will look at the work we have done and say at least they really tried.
Q. What do you think victims' groups now feel about VSS?
A. I would say they would say that things have not been fully dealt with, but they are being dealt with.
Q. What was the effect of the lack of a fully constituted board at the VSS which was criticised in the report as a "serious failing"?
A. We now have a board. We only had four people, and now we have seven. As of April we have a fully constituted board. It should have been from the start. It was a really serious failing that it was not.
Q. Yet April was almost two years after the report had been accepted, wasn't that also a huge delay?
A. That is a long delay but the posts are particularly difficult to fill because this is challenging and stressful work. Who would want to take it on? I would suggest not many. Yet we wanted to get the right people and I think we have now done so.
Q. This was where you joined as the new board - what qualities did you think you brought to the job?
A. I had worked in the probation service and had run the Victims Support Organisation for 10 years as well as working for years with the Healing Through Remembering group, so I was aware of the complexity of the victims and survivors community. I came in with my eyes wide open.
Q. And how do you feel the general public regard victims and their issues?
A. 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.
Q. Do you think that that sense of public denial feeds into the failure of our politicians to deal with victims issues over the years?
A. I don't, actually. I do not know a single MLA who does not have people coming in every day of the week with victims and survivors stories and they do understand, but more importantly they are collectively attempting to do their best to deal with a very difficult area.
It is not fashionable to say our politicians are doing the best that they can, but that is the case.
That is why they have refused to bury this issue and are continuing to try to make progress.
Q. And yet the mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in the Stormont House Agreement and the progress made there has been stymied for six months because of the state of politics here.
A. We need to find creative ways of dealing with the past and that has been talked about and is not being ignored but there is also every day and every week the work that is being done with victims on the ground - and that is our focus.
Q. Have you any personal experience of victimhood, did you lose any family in the Troubles?
A. No. Like many I have lived and worked and grown up in Northern Ireland and like many I refused to leave. But anything that I might have experienced pales into insignificance compared to the people I am working with every day of the week.
The most common thing I hear from victims and survivors across the board is that 'this must never be allowed to happen again'. It is their most common expression.
Q. And where do you stand on the vexed issue of the definition of a victim?
A. There is a definition (in legislation) and whether it changes or not will not make our work any less or any easier. We can spend a lot of time and energy but we have enough to be going on with so I am not even getting into that. All we can do is look when individuals come to us and say 'do they meet the criteria of being a victim?' and then say to them, 'how can we meet your needs as an individual?'.
Q. Isn't that a cop-out on such a central issue?
A. No, there is a definition. I can't question it. I won't question it. I work with it.
Q. What impact is the lack of a Victims Commissioner for more than a year now having?
A. 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 with no one there to distill the essence and bring clear messages to politicians and leaders and negotiate all of that.
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.
Q. So spell out what improvements you think have been made over the last 18 months?
A. We have made improvements at the most simple and basic level in that when people phone or come in they are listened to and if they are told something can be done, it is delivered. We have moved to cheaper premises so we have more funding to give out.
For example, we are dealing with around 1,000 phone calls every week, and some may involve short conversations but there are others where someone needs and deserves to be listened to, and that is done.
We also have on average 500 people dropping into our offices every month and we have new people presenting constantly.
There are nearly 70 groups providing support to around 12,000 individuals and another 4,000 people we are in direct contact with, and yes, there is some overlap.
Q. Can you honestly say that you have restored a proper working connection with victims groups?
A. Well, last week I was checking and we had had two questions sent in one day - which really amounted to complaints - and 25 thank-yous. Now that is only a snapshot, I know.
But I think we are getting down to the level of addressing people's needs as individuals. We do get a lot of anger. Every time there is a television programme - on collusion, say, or the on-the-runs - we have a sudden increase in callers and we will not avoid having those conversations. They are all very necessary.
Q. And yet one key issue has been how intrusive and unsetting people have found the individual needs review system to be.
A. I suppose for years counsellors and experts will debate whether or not that was effective. The original intention was to establish the needs of the individual and not to put or label them within a group.
I have had people who have said to me that it was good and helped them clarify what it was they needed and others who have told me it was very intrusive and did harm.
We are undertaking a massive piece of work at the moment, with the commission, and officials in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, to see how we can go about this better.
Q. Give me some practical examples of how the VSS is going forward?
A. We are saying to people: how can we help you to move on? what do you need to get to a better place?
In some cases there are people who don't go out of the house, who are afraid of their neighbours, who are spending all day caring for someone injured in the Troubles.
They may have to keep the heating on more than most of us. Maybe that is all they really need.
I recently met one elderly man who was very badly injured in an incident in the Troubles - he would not want to be identified.
His whole focus for years was ensuring that his own children were not embittered by what had happened to them, but that they went on to have good lives and they grew up and had his grandchildren and again his attention was on them because he did not want the same bigotry that had caused his injuries to ever happen again.
But all through that period he had never really looked at his own needs, and only really came forward recently.
There are many cases like that.
Q. And what do you think of recent studies showing the inter-generational legacy from the Troubles?
A. Yes, we have grandchildren who have lived in families where, say, their grandfather was injured in the Troubles and has not coped too well, has had a drink dependency, of course that has impacted on the children and the damage is passed on to the next generation.
Q. And like many organisations, has your funding been cut?
A. No, actually. We are one of the few organisations whose funding has actually increased. We were given £13.2m this year which was up from over the £12m mark the previous year, and we have also downsized, from around 40 staff to about 30. I would say that we are doing more and more of the right things.