Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Why the voices of the suffering must never be silenced

The past cannot be forgotten as Northern Ireland starts to build optimistically towards the future, says Commissioner for Victims & Survivors Kathryn Stone

I was appointed to the post of Victims Commissioner last September. Before I came I found a comment by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield who described the role as a "painful privilege".

If you look at the past through the eyes of victims and survivors you realise it is a very difficult place to get to and an even more difficult place to leave. These inherent difficulties are possibly why people have said victims should move on, or put it all behind them with the subtext that they'll all be dead soon and we can forget it.

My response to that attitude is straightforward. We must never forget and we must never try to put it all behind us. For the many hundreds of victims and survivors I have spoken to, this is offensive and insulting.

For them, the past is something they deal with every day. The past is now.

For the person who went out on a Sunday morning with his dad, came home alone and 25 years later is still waiting for answers while continuing to suffer immense physical pain, he is still dealing with the past.

If your child is shot by a stray bullet and you spend night after night sleeping on their gravestone years later, because you can't bear for them to be alone and frightened, you are still living with the past.

A woman wrote to me about her brother a former prisoner. She explained that to her he was a victim of the war. Her brother would never have told anyone about his torment. His children lost a father, she lost a brother and her parents lost their son and this was before he died.

The past changes you.

Dealing with the past presents significant challenges for us in the commission. How can we represent the many different views and how do we address the very different things that victims and survivors want when it comes to dealing with the past?

I believe we can start by being optimistic about the future here. Not a naive optimism, but rather an optimism born of a faith in people who want the very best for each other and where we as a Commission, with help from the Victims Forum, can make realistic recommendations to Government about what victims here feel would be useful to them as a way of dealing with the past.

A common theme in many countries coming out of conflict is a desire for justice through the courts. This is also recognised as one of the most difficult outcomes to achieve.

If we can't bring people to justice what can we do? Is a truth commission the answer and what do we mean by truth?

Research has shown that 50% of people in Northern Ireland think a truth commission would be useful but that 75% think no-one would tell the truth!

Perhaps truth isn't the right word. Perhaps truth is too loaded, too emotional, even too subjective.

A truth commission is a big picture societal response that doesn't help you if your legs were blown off and you are worried that won't have enough money to buy oil to heat your home if your benefits change.

Maybe what we need is information, or explanation, or acknowledgment. In this way those who have been so badly affected can be supported to begin to heal the wounds they have. To live, albeit as different people, but with an understanding that society accepts the terrible wrongs that happened and why they must never happen again.

What happens if we don't do this? Is time running out? The Commission's 'Troubled Consequences' research produced in partnership with the Bamford Centre at the University of Ulster certainly would suggest we are.

It found that four out of 10 people had experienced a traumatic event related to the Troubles and that we have one of the highest recorded rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) anywhere in the world. The researchers were particularly struck at such high levels of PTSD even compared to other areas of conflict and they linked the cause to the many years the conflict took place and to the inter- and intra-community nature of the violence.

A society scarred by violence must be marked by hope for the future. The continuing suffering of victims and survivors is a scar on the conscience of this society.

So where does this leave us? What should the commission do?

We are about practicality, such as working with the Department for Social Development to ensure those who have been seriously injured suffer no further negative impacts as a result of the changes to benefits being introduced.

We are about positioning, to make sure that victims' needs continue to be met and we will do this through scrutiny of services to make sure they are adequate and sustainable.

We are also about a promise to victims that through the work of the commission their voices and their present pain will not be consigned to the past.

A wonderfully brave woman, who has experienced the most terrible hurt wrote to me recently and at the end of her letter she said: "Thank you my friend for giving me a voice."

First and last – it is the job of the commissioner to give victims and survivors a voice. It is my job, it is my painful privilege, to make sure they are heard and for the rest of society to make sure it listens.

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