‘Wave is truly an amazing group... this is really for all the people around me’
One of the heroes at this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Ulster Bank has changed the lives of thousands of people for the better.
Peter Heathwood, from north Belfast, who was instrumental in securing a pension for victims of the Troubles, was just one of the exceptional people from all walks of life who were were honoured at a special event at the Culloden Estate and Spa in Cultra, hosted by TV personality Pamela Ballantine.
After a tough 18 months for everyone, many inspirational stories of self-sacrifice and heroism emerged, making the job of selecting our finalists and winners a very challenging one.
The task fell to our judging panel, which included Belfast actor Ian McElhinney, known for his performances in Derry Girls and Game of Thrones, UTV’s Pamela, Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life Deputy Editor-In-Chief Martin Breen and Mairead Duffy, from our headline sponsors Ulster Bank.
Awards were presented in 11 categories, alongside two special commendations, following a champagne reception at the hotel.
A highlight of the annual awards calendar, the Spirit of NI recognises people who go above and beyond for others
Our Special Recognition Award went to Peter Heathwood, from north Belfast, who was instrumental in securing a pension for victims of the Troubles.
The judges felt that the tireless campaigner, also a finalist in our Overcoming Adversity category, deserved to be singled out for his 13-year battle.
The Special Recognition award, sponsored by our lead supporter Ulster Bank, celebrates someone who has gone above and beyond for others.
Peter, a 67-year-old father-of-three, dedicated the award to everyone in the Wave Injured Group who campaigned alongside him.
“I couldn’t praise that group of people enough, how courageous they are and how strong mentally,” he said.
“They are an amazing group of people who didn’t let what happened to them destroy them — and they have some horrific stories to tell. I see it as an honour for the group around me. One of the things we didn’t want during the campaign was to become celebrity victims. We are not glory hunters. This award is recognition for how hard everyone has fought.”
The group’s pursuit of a pension, which was eventually granted in June, has served as an inspiration for campaigners everywhere.
A former history teacher who switched careers to become an insurance salesman, Peter’s life changed in an instant when he was paralysed in a loyalist shooting at his home in 1979 in a case of mistaken identity.
The attack triggered a series of tragic events in the family, with his father Herbert dying of a shock-induced heart attack on the day of the shooting and Peter’s wife Anne never recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Peter, who now lives in Killough, Co Down, still clearly remembers the moments leading up to the attack.
“It was 6.30pm on Thursday, September 27, 1979, and I had just come in from work. I was watching the news and playing with my youngest daughter Louise, who was three months old.
“The door bell rang and my wife went to answer it. I heard her squealing and I jumped up and saw a man coming down the hall holding Anne, who was kicking and squealing, by the hair with his left hand. He had a gun in his right hand.
“I was in a room at the back of the house and as he approached it I grabbed Anne, threw her out of the way and slammed and barred the door.
“Another gunman shot through the door and hit my shoulder and chest. The shots missed the baby by inches.
“I couldn’t get up as my legs wouldn’t work. I knew my dad had angina and I told Anne to tell him I was alright and then I passed out.”
Peter’s parents and sisters, who lived on the Ormeau Road, were approaching the house as he was being moved to an ambulance. Because they couldn’t get a stretcher into the small hallway of the property on Cliftonville Road, medics took Peter out in a body bag. On seeing the body bag, however, his father assumed his son had died and collapsed with a fatal heart attack.
“I was unconscious for two weeks and didn’t know my dad had died. His last words were ‘my poor Peter,’” Peter said.
He and his dad were not the only victims that night. His wife Anne was left traumatised and never recovered, dying at just 51 years old in 2006.
“We had three young children and Anne was left dealing with them, the police and ambulance and her husband seriously injured, as well as my dad dying outside our house,” Peter said.
“She was diagnosed with PTSD. She just couldn’t cope and went into depression. She just couldn’t get over it. She blamed herself for opening the door. We did everything we could, but she couldn’t stop blaming herself.
“People talk about the Troubles and violence, but they don’t realise the ripple effect in families. There have been 28 people die of heart attacks as a result of the violence during the Troubles, yet they are not classed as victims.”
Peter spent almost a year in hospital before being finally discharged in a wheelchair. His life had changed in so many ways. Before the shooting, he had just bought a home which he turned into apartments as an investment for his family’s future.
He also had to get used to life in a wheelchair.
“I had just started to go into the property business. We bought the nine-bedroom, three-bathroom house for £6,000 and turned it into three apartments and we lived on the ground floor,” Peter said.
“The plan was to pay off that £6,000 and then buy another one.
“I left teaching because I was just getting jobs filling in for other teachers and it wasn’t very secure with a family and mortgage.
“I went into insurance and became head of the sales team for life insurance and pensions.
“I am 6ft 3 inches tall and when I went into a room you knew I was in it.
“I went from looking down at people’s bald patches to sitting in a wheelchair, looking at their a****.
“The love of my family, my sisters, my mother and everybody helped me. My friends were fantastic. They never treated me any differently.
“You just have to get on with it. It’s sink or swim.”
It was later discovered that the intended target was a taxi driver who was renting one of the upstairs flats from the family. No one has ever been charged with the shooting.
Despite living with constant pain, Peter dedicated his life to his family and the pension campaign.
His three children Patrick (47), Anne-Marie (46) and Louise (42) and 14 grandchildren mean the world to him.
“I was in the hospital for 50 weeks and Anne was sent for on two occasions because they thought I would be dead in the morning. I remember the doctors telling me afterwards that I should be dead because of my injuries and I said ‘I want to see my children grow up and my grandchildren’,” Peter said.
“I am a very proud granddad and have grandchildren who are all over the world.”
Peter believes the pension campaign, which started 13 years ago when a group of injured people met at the Wave Trauma Centre, gave him a focus in life.
The organisation gathered a petition which was handed into Downing Street, Stormont and the Dail. Its members also put together a book of their stories which they used to lobby MLAs.
“I am paraplegic, but I met people who had lost legs or were blinded, people from all sectors of our community injured by all combatants,” Peter said.
“We all worked together as friends and what a battle and what a fantastic achievement.
“Thousands of victims now have the recognition and financial help going into their old age.
“This was never about getting money for fancy holidays. Most victims are in their 60s and 70s. It was about giving them independence in their old age.”
As a former teacher, Peter was aware that, at the height of the Troubles, he was living in a turbulent period of Irish and British history.
Since 1981, he has recorded every news bulletin and television programme made about the violence.
This work now forms an important part of the Cain Archive at Ulster University — an invaluable resource for anyone interested in researching the Troubles, including documentary makers, investigative journalists and detectives investigating cold cases.
Peter’s contribution to the pensions campaign was perhaps best summed up by former Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Peter Hain.
“What Peter has done in helping get this pension over the line is truly remarkable,” he said.
“He is a brave, bright, determined man whose tireless campaigning and compelling arguments helped win the day.”