Belfast Telegraph

Time to take care of unfinished business

The shelving of the Eames-Bradley report left victims of the Troubles in limbo. But at a meeting chaired by Suzanne Breen tonight, their voices will be heard

They have never felt more marginalised and isolated. Around 200 victims of the Troubles will gather in Parliament Buildings at Stormont tonight to quiz our politicians on why they've been forgotten.

They will ask DUP, Ulster Unionist, SDLP, TUV and Alliance speakers for their proposals on the victims' issue in advance of May's Assembly elections.

Those bereaved and injured who assemble for the meeting tonight, which I am chairing, will all be from the Protestant/unionist community - but they could just as easily be from the other side of the political divide. Nationalist victims have every reason to feel equally aggrieved.

Since the Eames-Bradley report was effectively binned two years ago, the entire victims' issue has dropped off the political agenda.

While Northern Ireland moves towards the future, albeit slowly and grudgingly, those who suffered most seem to have been swept aside - relics of a dirty, grubby little war that now causes nothing but embarrassment to mainstream society.

Lip-service continues to be paid to our 'brave' victims, but little is practically done to meet their needs. Eames-Bradley may be gathering dust on a Stormont shelf, but at least its authors were handsomely paid - £680-a-day.

No wonder many families of the 3,700 dead and 35,000 injured, still battling serious financial hardship, are cynical about the whole victims' industry which seems to benefit middle-class, professional do-gooders who never lost a finger-nail in the Troubles - let alone a loved-one or a limb.

As the recession heightens, there are suspicions that - in spite of the honeyed words and pledges - victims have less chance than ever of a decent, consistent approach to their needs.

NHS cutbacks will undoubtedly impinge on the treatment of those still suffering physical and mental injuries. The Executive's 10-year strategy for victims includes OFMDFM setting up a new victims' and survivors' service, but this has been subject to countless delays.

Some of the injured receive finance from the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund for private healthcare, such as chiropractic treatment. Less savvy victims aren't even aware of their entitlements because the whole approach to victims is so piecemeal.

Those facing victims' questions at Stormont will be DUP Culture Minister Nelson McCausland, SDLP MLA Conal McDevitt, former Victims' Commissioner and UUP Assembly candidate Mike Nesbitt, TUV leader Jim Allister and Alliance MLA Stephen Farry.

Among the audience will be Manya Dickinson. Her father, Kenny Graham, a contractor who supplied building materials to the security forces, died when an IRA bomb exploded under his car in 1990.

Manya lives in the house overlooking the drive where her father was killed. Every day - taking her children to school, going shopping or on other errands - she passes the exact spot where the device went off. "The past is all around me," she says.

She feels betrayed by the DUP: "When they were in opposition and the UUP was the main unionist party, DUP politicians pushed us in front of the cameras at every opportunity. Now, we're an embarrassment and they can't get away quick enough."

Sam Malcolmson was a 22-year-old RUC officer when he was seriously wounded in an IRA gun attack in South Armagh 40 years ago. Part of a bullet lodged in his spine, paralysing him from the waist down on his left side.

While his motor nerves were damaged, his sensory ones remained intact - the result is chronic pain which still requires 16 tablets-a-day. "I don't know how the politicians can live with themselves," he says. "One injured ex-officer considered selling the medal he'd won for bravery in order to make ends meet."

Sam Malcolmson believes our politicians don't want to hear awkward voices like his anymore: "We victims are getting old and worn down. We're tired fighting. Soon we won't be heard at all. They'll be glad to be rid of us."

On the nationalist side, many victims still hunger for justice, particularly in cases of state collusion. It isn't just that killers were freed early from jail under the Good Friday Agreement. Rather that there never was - and never will be - any chance that they'll face a court, let alone a prison cell.

While the Bloody Sunday families received some closure, those of the 11 Ballymurphy victims - shot dead in 1973 in another ruthless display by the Paras - are still denied even a facade of justice.

And perhaps those facing the greatest challenge are individuals who don't fit their community's stereotype of a victim. John, then an 18-year-old east Belfast Protestant, was shot by the Army following rioting near the peace line in 1974.

The bullet ruptured his bowels and other organs, leaving a hole the size of a football. He developed gas gangrene and required 33 pints of blood during his four-month hospital stay. He didn't receive a penny compensation because a solicitor at the time advised he was ineligible.

Tolerable in his younger days, the pain has worsened with age. "I've asked many unionist politicians for help with my situation, but none has been interested because the perpetrator was the state," John says.

Tonight, like many other victims, he will be at Stormont, hoping for answer.

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