'Every victim's voice must be heard'
The US Congress denied Diane Dodds the opportunity of addressing it on behalf of the victims of republican violence. Here, she relives the night the IRA tried to assassinate her husband, as their son lay ill in hospital.
Last week, I wrote to members of the US Congressional foreign affairs joint sub-committee, which received evidence on the subject of The Northern Ireland Peace Process Today: Attempting to Deal with the Past.
The Washington DC committee, drawn from some of the most influential people in American politics, heard evidence from, among others, Dr Richard Haass and Geraldine Finucane. However, they did not receive evidence from one single victim of republican terrorism.
Fifty-eight per cent of all Troubles-related deaths in Northern Ireland were the responsibility of republicans. To not hear evidence from any Provisional IRA victim was a startling oversight on the part of this Capitol Hill committee.
I felt compelled to write to the committee members, not because I am a DUP Member of the European Parliament, but because I wanted to communicate my disappointment that victims of republican terrorism were excluded from this important conversation.
Rather than exchange political brickbats with the committee members, I simply told them how republicans had targeted my family.
Friday, December 20, 1996 is a date etched upon my memory. Shortly after 8pm that day, I was visiting my late son, Andrew, in the intensive care unit of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
Andrew, my second child, was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. In spite of being confined to a wheelchair, Andrew led a very full and active life. He played (and fought) with his older brother like any other child would. Andrew was able to do most of the things that his friends could, only he did them in a different way.
As a consequence of Andrew's illness, we had become well-used to the inside of the children's hospital, located on the edge of west Belfast.
I had been by his bedside for days in the intensive care unit. However, with the doctors noting an improvement in his condition, we were advised to go and get some fresh air and something to eat. After a short time away from the hospital, we were contacted and asked to return, because Andrew's condition had deteriorated.
As any mother, or father, will appreciate, our focus at that moment was being back by Andrew's bed. Our security was a secondary thought.
Normal protocol would have been to contact the police and arrange an escort. Normally, the police arrived with us and walked us to the ward and stood guard.
However, given the urgency, my husband, Nigel, and I arrived alone, entered the hospital and went straight to Andrew's bed. The police arrived separately.
Whether by coincidence, or design, I am unsure, but it was that evening, when we arrived alone, that the Provisional IRA chose to launch a murder bid on my husband. The terrorists, their faces disguised, walked through the hospital and straight to our ward. Not expecting to meet police guards, the shooting started before they could reach Andrew's bed.
They failed to hit us, but did succeed in wounding one police officer. Meanwhile, another bullet struck an unoccupied baby incubator.
I try not to think about that evening too often, but when I do, I shudder at the carnage that would have been wrought had a baby been in that incubator.
Mercifully, Andrew was not injured in this attempt on my husband's life. However, it speaks volumes about the cruelty and heartlessness of the IRA. The Provo leaders in Belfast put everyone in that intensive care unit at risk and exploited Andrew's time in hospital as a chance to carry out murder. The mindset of such a 'man' must be incredibly twisted and sick.
The gunmen responsible for that senseless murder-bid fled the scene and have never been apprehended. I suspect they never will be.
My story is by no means unique. There are hundreds of mothers who can relate to that story. They suffered similar – or an even worse – evil. There are more than 2,000 unsolved murders arising out of the Troubles. There is a legacy of suffering and pain.
Our Andrew died in 1998. Parents who have experienced the loss of a child know the impact it has on all aspects of the family. In life, Andrew personified bravery. The gunmen personified evil.
While I have put my story in writing to the committee members, I would like the opportunity to speak directly to them on Capitol Hill.
I want other innocent victims also to give their perspective on how to deal with the past. Confronted with the impact of terrorism, I expect the committee would leave with a more balanced opinion.
The victims I speak with don't want to live in the past. They want to keep Northern Ireland moving forward. They want their children to have a peaceful life.
However, they also want to see justice delivered and those who broke the law held to account. They don't want to see justice corrupted.
* Diane Dodds is DUP Member of the European Parliament for Northern Ireland