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My father’s coffin is still a heavy weight to shoulder

Methodist minister the Rev Dr David Clements, whose father William was murdered in an IRA attack on Ballygawley RUC barracks in 1985, explains why the Eames/Bradley payout is wrong

Published 04/02/2009

In the past few days several friends have said to me — ‘I saw you on telly last Wednesday.' I was sitting in the third row of the audience at the launch of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past.

I was not one of those causing the rumpus, though I know quite well some of those who were — from both sides of the community. I am talking about those who suffered great loss because of the Troubles, under various circumstances and not the petty politicians who did some of the heckling.

I had arrived early, leaving a conference I was attending in Sligo while it was still dark, and taken that seat near the front. I did so in the hope that I might get the chance to ask a question after the presentation. As it turned out there was no opportunity — not even over the lunch that followed, the Group seemed to have scurried away.

When the Group was announced 18 months ago I had a few concerns. One was about the motives of Peter Hain and the NIO — did they intend that this Group should provide a smoke-screen to cover the failures of government in dealing properly with the concrns of victims of the Troubles? My other big concern was about the make-up of the group. I was not the only one who noticed and commented on the fact that no one on the group appeared to have particular personal experience of the worst impacts of the Troubles.

I know that as Archbishop, Robin Eames shared in more Troubles related funerals than probably anyone else. I also have conducted some such funerals. But I have also felt the weight of my father's coffin — a weight greatly increased by the lead of two IRA bullets — and believe me there is a difference.

I can guess why no ‘victim or survivor' was appointed to the group. We are too raw, emotional and difficult — see the fracas there was at the launch of the report! That stereotype is only a small part of the real big picture. Others with clearer perception have seen that some of the very best community relations work has been done in victims groups like WAVE. Who could not have been impressed by the conversation on Radio Ulster’s Talkback between Alan McBride, of WAVE and Mark Thompson, of Relatives for Justice.

I am fairly sure that if there had been one or two people on the Group from the ‘victims and survivors sector' they would not have made the mistake with regard to the recognition payment of £12,000. It was clearly a mistake, albeit an honest one. Whoever chose to brief the Press on this particular point five days in advance of the report, for whatever reason, made a monumental and inexcusable mistake. Sadly, some good things in the report may now be lost forever.

At the launch I listened very carefully for an explanation of the recommendation that the next of kin of each person killed in the Troubles should get a payment of £12,000. The best explanation, offered by Denis Bradley seemed to be that it was a way for society to say “sorry for your troubles” in the banal way that we do at Irish wakes. It was emphasised that it was not linked with the notion of compensation — it was about recognition. However, when you read the report it is clearly linked with the question of compensation.

At the launch I was not impressed by the apology that Lord Eames offered. The reaction over the weekend had clearly stung the Group, and perhaps Robin in particular, and so something had to be said. However, it was not an apology for the mistaken recommendation (as some BBC reports suggested) it was rather an apology about timings. I was offended by the suggestion implied that if only I would think about it a bit longer, 18 months say, then I would see it their way.

What is so wrong with the recommendation? Lots of things! But my space is running out. Firstly there will be enormous practical problems — I read the report thinking that the Group would have given some careful thought to this, but apparently not. Many families bereaved through the Troubles are fractured and complicated. Many have financial needs and would benefit from even a share of £12,000. Those needs should, of course, be addressed, but not this way. The administration of this payment will be a nightmare in many cases.

Secondly, what is the money for? People often misquote the Bible, saying ‘money is the root of all evil'. Paul actually told Timothy that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil'. Money is neutral, neither good nor evil, it is a means of exchange.

So what is being exchanged for £12,000? In principle, I don't give an alcoholic money. If he is hungry I will buy him food, if he is cold I will buy him a bag of coal. In practice, life is busy and sometimes I do just slip him a few quid, to get him to shut up and go away. If the intention, even subliminally, is to quiet the victims’ voice then it is not just a mistake, it is immoral.

Finally there is another moral point, one that few, if any, commentators have picked up. It has to do with the payment of the £12,000 to the families of all — including those perpetrators who died by the sword they themselves chose to take up. I have been involved with WAVE's management group for about 15 years. Our policy has always been one of inclusion and I have always supported that policy. Recognising that every mother’s tears taste salty and offering services to all according to need does not logically, nor morally lead on to a recognition payment for all, irrespective of the context in which they died.

John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite with great expertise in conflict transformation, said here a long time ago that recognition is very important to victims. It involves at least three elements, he said — this happened; it was wrong; and it should never happen again.

What is so wrong with the Eames/Bradley recommendation is that it undermines the middle of those three elements and so, as a recognition payment it is self-defeating.

Take my mother as an example. She would get £12,000. She doesn't really need it now — she would probably give it to her grandchildren.

Any one of them would, I think, exchange it all for just one weekend with the grandfather none of them ever got to meet. But then the people who killed my father were later killed themselves, as they attempted to murder other policemen, using among many other weapons the gun they had taken from my dead father's body. To give the same recognition payment to their families is morally inept and undermines the recognition given to the likes of my mother.

However this is worked out, please do not slap my mother in the face, she deserves better than this.

Dr David Clements is on the management board of WAVE which offers care and support to anyone bereaved or traumatised by the Troubles

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