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Kenny Donaldson: 'A Catholic family gave us a fiver for the 12th'

Published 27/07/2015

Taking a stand: Kenny Donaldson (second from right) of Justice for Innocent Victims with, from left, victims’ relatives Margo Heatherington, Shelley Gilfillan, Stephen Gault and Aileen Quinton at Stormont
Taking a stand: Kenny Donaldson (second from right) of Justice for Innocent Victims with, from left, victims’ relatives Margo Heatherington, Shelley Gilfillan, Stephen Gault and Aileen Quinton at Stormont
Kenny Donaldson, victims campaigner

Adrian Rutherford talks to the victims campaigner about his Crossmaglen childhood and what must change in politics.

Q. How did you get involved in the victims' sector?

A. I was brought up in Crossmaglen and, during the years of the terror campaign, south Armagh suffered badly.

I witnessed a number of incidents myself and had family members who served in the security forces.

After the Belfast Agreement of 1998, I felt that the victims and survivors' constituency was the one grouping more so than others which took most of the pain with the release of prisoners and so on.

They have been almost left by the roadside ever since and have continued to be asked to pay a heavy sacrifice for the rest of the community.

I felt that I could make a contribution in serving those individuals.

I've worked with South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) since July 2008, and prior to that I worked for a rural support network based in Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, where I was able to work with victims and survivors from around 2005 onwards. So for the best part of a decade I have been working with these issues.

I'm also spokesman for Innocent Victims United, which is an umbrella body for 23 victims' groups which represents innocent victims and survivors of terrorism and other Troubles-related violence across Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe.

Q. Did you lose anyone from your family during the Troubles?

A. No, my family was very fortunate. It didn't come to our door, but I knew people who did suffer. I was born in 1980, so missed the worst years - the 1970s - but from 1984 onwards my earliest memories would be of illegal IRA checkpoints.

The first incident that really struck me was two IRA members who blew themselves up while loading a bomb about three-quarters of a mile from our home. I remember our house literally shaking with the power of that bomb.

The last soldier to be murdered in Crossmaglen was in 1993. Myself and my father were in town that day and in fairly close proximity to the attack.

Q. What was it like as a unionist growing up in Crossmaglen?

A. Crossmaglen was a strange place in that if you were driving five or six miles, you would have gone through as many Army checkpoints.

People referred to it as Bandit Country, but I'm a very proud Crossmaglen man. I'm very proud to come from south Armagh.

In many ways, other people have tarnished the name of the area, but there are very many good people living in that area as well. It's also a very beautiful place.

We attend a wee church there - the Creggan Church of Ireland - which is the most southerly Protestant church in Northern Ireland. We're down to about 14 or 15 parishioners, but the church has an important role in the community through its Christian mission and community outreach programme.

Q. Did you encounter any difficulties in Crossmaglen?

A. We can trace our family lineage to around 11 generations in the area, so people always knew in that area that we were Protestants and that we had our views in terms of unionism, but there was almost like a begrudging respect for that.

I would have first noticed a difference when I was four years of age and travelling to Newtownhamilton Primary School, which was seven or eight miles away, while the neighbours were travelling a couple of miles down the road to school.

By and large we had excellent relationships with the neighbours.

Over the years, when the Troubles were at their height, two issues that were never spoken about were religion and politics.

However, that has slowly changed in recent times. My brother, Alastair, has recently been ordained as a Church of Ireland rector, and the local south Armagh Roman Catholic community has supported many initiatives he has been involved in.

You had some terrible deeds that were committed in south Armagh - acts of sectarian and ethnically-motivated terrorism - but there was a normality to the life as well.

It was a rural area, and people from very diverse religious and political backgrounds lived together as neighbours, cheek by jowl.

I can cite one example of a family who, although they did not support violence, were republican in terms of their outlook. They would always have come over to us on the Eleventh Night and given us £5 each to enjoy our day at the Twelfth, and they would have watched our farm on the day as well.

Q. You are now involved in SEFF. What is it and what does it do?

A. It was formed in 1998 - the year of the Belfast Agreement - and its mission statement is, 'Supporting victims and survivors, strengthening communities'.

We are very much about working with an individual victim, assisting them to reach a point where they feel a survivor of what has been done to them.

We don't believe it's in anyone's interests to keep people locked in a state of victimhood. Those hurt so badly have to feel able to have some semblance of life.

The strengthening communities aspect is saying that victims and survivors can't exist separately from the rest. They should feel able and valued to take their role in community structures.

Q. Do you work with victims from right across the religious divide?

A. It is cross-community but in south Fermanagh, where the origins of SEFF are, the statistics show 42 lives lost - 38 were PIRA murders, two members of the IRA lost their lives in the midst of their own actions and two Roman Catholic civilians were stabbed to death.

The breakdown is very much one-sided, so membership would predominantly come from the Protestant community.

However, in recent years we have had people joining our organisation from across Northern Ireland, the Republic, Great Britain and beyond. They come from all religious and political backgrounds, and it is because of our consistent rejection of all violence.

Q. What is a victim? Because different people interpret it different ways.

A. In our view, a victim is someone who has been harmed in an offensive and premeditated criminal action and/or their surviving family.

It's very simple - victim in the English dictionary denotes innocence.

The necessity to describe people as 'innocent victims' shows what is wrong in society and where society has gone.

If I steal from someone, am I a victim? No. Is my mother or father a victim? No. So how can the fact that a person has murdered someone mean that they, or their mother or father, are a victim? They can't be.

We don't deny that there are some who were involved in terrorism who have very real health and welfare needs.

We accept that is the case, but the absurdity is that those individuals are currently supported through the legalised definition of victim. That is naked political appeasement.

Q. There are often accusations that victims are forgotten about. Is that fair?

A. I think services for victims and survivors have improved in recent years. There has been an investment of finance.

A lot of it depends on how proactive the groups which support victims and survivors are, and indeed how proactive government is on the issue.

In our group, we bring information to victims. We don't wait for people to come to our office or write to us. It's about knowing people, knowing what their needs are and offering them help.

Those who are affected are often very humble. They have to be encouraged to accept support, which they sometimes believe they aren't entitled to receive.

Q. Are you satisfied with the political parties' approach to victims?

A. In terms of dealing with the past, there has been too much papering over the cracks. We have limped from one situation to the next.

Now we have come to the point where we need a universal accord across the board. The governments - UK, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland Assembly - and all terrorist organisations need to accept that the use of terrorism and violence in the furtherance of or defence of a political objective is never justified.

When you have that, you will have the right foundations and bedrock on which to build society.

But while you still have the denials, such as the justification or otherwise of that violence, and the glorification of it, you are tormenting victims and risking opportunities for it to be repeated down the line.

Q. Does the Assembly make victims here enough of a priority?

A. Government can legitimately say that it has invested finance within services for victims around mental health, social support and so on. But it is all these other issues - the thornier problems around dealing with the past and the representation of the narrative of the past - that hurt people.

You have two band parades each year - one in Belfast and one in Portadown - named after loyalist terrorists.

And you have cases where terrorists are eulogised within sport, for instance the GAA.

Also, look at the issue with the Maze. I look at Spandau Prison in Berlin, where Rudolf Hess, Hitler's right-hand man, was kept. When he died that prison was flattened within two hours by the German authorities because they had severe fears it would become a neo-Nazi shrine.

Contrast that with what was proposed here in terms of the Maze - making it a tourist hub, almost a cash-cow - and the reality as we see it is that it would inevitably have become a terror shrine.

Q. There has been controversy over parades commemorating terrorists, notably in Castlederg in 2013. How upsetting have these been for victims?

A. They cause great hurt. These type of illegal parades happen continually across the country. Often they are not reported on.

You see young children being brought to these parades. I think that there are serious child abuse issues there.

Q. In what sense do you mean?

A. You have this glamorisation and romanticisation, where a young child is told that these people are heroes and martyrs, but they cannot go out and do what they did because the clock of terrorism justification stopped in 1998. A young child doesn't understand that.

They are being subjected to a glorification of violence but then told they cannot go down that road, and it's a very mixed message.

Terrorism and violence wasn't legitimate in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s or today in 2015.

Q. Many murders from the Troubles remain unsolved. Is justice realistically possible now or is it time to move on?

A. I don't think that the option of punitive justice should ever be taken away. That is a dangerous road to go down.

Look at the case of Constable John Proctor (shot dead by the IRA in 1981), where a PIRA terrorist was convicted in 2013 and jailed for two years. While that is by no means full justice, it is at least a measure of justice for the family that an individual has been held publicly accountable. We accept that in a large number of cases a custodial sentence will not be possible.

However, the bigger issue is really one of accountability, because that eclipses both truth and justice - it is almost a merger of the two. For many people in border areas, accountability from the Republic of Ireland is a huge issue in terms of the security and extradition policies they presided over which facilitated the growth of terrorism.

Q. It is very hard to get justice though, especially with the lack of resources.

A. The government claims to have competing demands between the past and the future, but there is a feeling amongst our membership that the government thinks it can short-circuit the process of bringing about healing in society and full-blown reconciliation.

You can't do that until you have justice and accountability as the bedrock of that society. As painful and difficult as it is, we have to work through it.

We saw in recent days a 94-year-old being prosecuted and sentenced for Nazi war crimes. They chase and hound and hold people accountable until the day they die in those circumstances, so why should victims of republican or loyalist terrorism expect anything less?

Q. A new Victims Commissioner was finally appointed recently. Do you believe that the post itself is worthwhile?

A. We have argued that the new commissioner must be given the latitude to do the job that was envisaged. They cannot just simply mirror Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister political policy.

We would argue that's what happened with the previous commissioner (Kathryn Stone), even coming to the situation where she was not able to describe either the IRA or the UVF as terrorist organisations.

We also felt very frustrated with the lack of concentration on issues connected with the Republic of Ireland. It didn't feature in the commissioner's priorities. You also cannot discriminate against a victim or survivor on the basis of postcode. One in 10 of those who lost their lives during the Troubles is attributable to Great Britain, and there are practically zero services in GB for them.

Q. You recently missed out on replacing Tom Elliott as UUP MLA for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Are you finished with politics or would you consider standing in the 2016 Assembly election?

A. I have a lot of considering time ahead of me. You would be foolish and reactionary to rule things out for the long term, but it's not on my radar at the moment.

Q. What happened with the selection process? I ask because there was a considerable deal of controversy around it.

A. I was the top-placed candidate at the selection meeting. Along with Councillor Rosemary Barton I was selected to go to UUP headquarters for the second phase of the process, but there was advised a mathematical miscount which meant three candidates went through to the interview process conducted by party officers.

Following that, the originally third-placed candidate (Neil Somerville) was offered the post. I have accepted the outcome with grace.

Q. Were you disappointed though?

A. There is a role to be done with victims and survivors. If the other had happened and I was entrusted to serve people as an MLA, then I would have given it my all. If not, then I was and am very content doing what I have been doing.

Q. Are you still a member of the UUP?

A. I am, yes.

Q. Going back to victims, what needs to happen?

A. An accord across the board by the two governments and terrorist organisations that the use of terrorism or violence is never legitimate in pursuance of a political objective.

After that solid foundation is in place, a lot of the rest will follow.

Without that, where you still have people prepared to defend the taking of another person's life for a political objective, this place cannot resolve itself.

Q. Is that a realistic expectation?

A. If there is a groundswell from civic society and from those in Government who know better, then it can happen. But there has to be a lot more effort from everyone.

Why should the political system drop its requirements to placate particular groups?

It is up to those groups to raise themselves to that standard instead of everyone else dropping the bar for them.

I think that there's been enough dropping done over the past 15-20 years to placate and bring them on board the political and peace processes.

It is now time for them to raise their bar.

Q. How important is it that the victims of violence are never forgotten?

A. There is no death like one where another human being has taken a course of action to end another's life. People die in tragic circumstances, such as illness, and nobody is discounting that.

But for another human being to decide that a person's life is worthless or that their life can be taken for reasons of politics and territory, that is something very, very different. Too many people suffered because of this and they cannot be forgotten.

  • South East Fermanagh Foundation is based in Lisnaskea and offers support to victims and survivors of terrorism and their families. It can be contacted on 028 6772 3884, by emailing, website:, or on Facebook: SEFF Victims

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