Belfast Telegraph

Call for Troubles victims to get 'sorry' letters

Commissioner's proposal to help us deal with past

By Chris Kilpatrick

Those responsible for Troubles killings should write letters of apology to their victims and families, a controversial new report has claimed.

The Commission for Victims and Survivors published its advice paper to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, entitled Dealing With The Past.

It contains four key recommendations to address conflict legacy issues in Northern Ireland.

Among them is an official acknowledgment of the hurt and pain caused to victims in the form of a written apology.

And the report said financial reparation was vital for all those affected by the conflict.

The report does not specify who would be eligible for such payments, citing long-running wrangles over the definition of a victim.

Under an all-inclusive scheme the families of terrorists such as Shankill bomber Thomas Begley – killed by his own bomb in the 1993 IRA atrocity – could be financially compensated.

The report said the sending of letters of apology by perpetrators of violence would be hugely beneficial to victims.

Any individual victim who sought to receive an acknowledgement could identify themselves to a specially commissioned body that would then verify the incident and issue a letter of apology for the individual's loss, suffering, injury, trauma or hurt.

The commission said the British and Irish governments should work together to co-ordinate the process.

"I just think there is something about formal recognition from those responsible on all sides that acknowledges the experience of all who have been hurt," Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone said last night.

"I find it astonishing that for very many people I meet who shared their experience, that I have been the first person that has said to them 'I am sorry for your loss'."

However, Michael Gallagher – whose 21-year-old son Aiden was killed in the 1998 Omagh bombing – said a letter would not suffice.

"Victims are a diverse group of people with different desires. Some feel a letter from the perpetrator is enough, some may feel financial assistance is required, and others feel justice is what is required," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"For me, a letter is a soft option. Many perpetrators would be delighted to say sorry and for that to be the end of the story.

"For me, justice and truth is vitally important."

Ms Stone said events of the past month highlighted the need for "official apologies to victims and survivors who have never had any formal recognition of their pain and suffering".

The reports says:

  •  An Acknowledgment Unit should be established jointly by the British and Irish governments that will make arrangements so an official apology can be issued to all victims and survivors individually as required.
  •  An independent commission is set up to compile a composite narrative of the Troubles.
  • An organisation is set up, under the remit of the Department of Justice, with the powers to investigate, co-ordinate and report on the provision of justice for all historical cases.
  •  Bereaved, injured and carers would all be eligible for a programme of high-quality services, financial assistance and pension for the severely injured.

The report continued: "Reparations could take the form of a one-off payment and the provision of a conflict-related pension."

Ms Stone, who will step down next month, has been critical of the standard of services offered to those bereaved or injured.

But she has previously insisted frustration at lack of political progress was not a factor in her decision to leave.

The commission said there was merit in many of the mechanisms included in the Haass proposals.

It is accepted in the report that not all of those affected may wish to take part in any process on the past.

"They are the living conscience of the past and we have to do more than pay lip-service to listening. We need to stop the cycle of constant consultation and rejection of proposals because they do not meet every political nuance," Ms Stone said.

"I believe there is the political will to meet the needs of victims and survivors, that needs to be translated into action and that action must be now."

The report was produced following discussions with victims' groups, advice from the Victims Forum and views expressed at a major conference last February.


Jean's family pledge to continue fighting

The children of IRA murder victim Jean McConville have vowed to continue fighting for justice as they gathered to mark what would have been her 80th birthday.

Relatives planted a tree and released doves into the air during a poignant ceremony of music and prayer at a victims' support centre in north Belfast yesterday.

Meanwhile, a 56-year-old man who was rearrested in connection with the murder of Belfast mother-of-10 has been released pending a police report being sent to prosecutors.

After the remembrance event at the Wave Trauma Centre, Mrs McConville's son Michael said the last week had proved very stressful for the family.

"We know it's going to be a long road to try and get justice for our mother, we know all these events when they take place we know we are going to go through a hard time," said Mr McConville.

"We have been backed into a corner by the IRA and we are going to come out fighting and we want justice for our mother."

Mr McConville reiterated the family's call for the case to be handled by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, citing concerns about political interference with policing in Northern Ireland.

"We want our mother's case to be taken out of Northern Ireland," he said.

"We want it brought it to The Hague, we want an independent body to look at this, we don't want anyone here to be looking at it."

He said he and the other children lived in hope that one day justice would be obtained.

"I don't know whether it will ever come but we are hoping it does come and the length of time I am on this earth I will be fighting every day to get my mother's case heard in the proper manner."


Four key aspects of the report and the effects they could have on families

COMPENSATION: The report resurrects the possibility of reparation for Troubles' victims – but with no definition of what constitutes a victim.

It says reparation should take the form of not only financial compensation, but also rehabilitation, apologies and memorials, and guarantees of non-repetition.

The report accepts that "no tariff or scale rate" could address the suffering of victims.

"Bereaved, injured and carers would all be eligible," the report says. "To do this effectively a significant amount of funding would be required."

The report suggests funding be drawn from the Northern Ireland Executive, British and Irish governments, the European Union and donations from any other international states who wished to contribute, such as the United States and Libya.

APOLOGY: The report says all victims need acknowledgement and an apology for their hurt, pain and suffering endured throughout the Troubles.

The Commission recommends that the British and Irish governments work together to co-ordinate a joint response.

An Acknowledgement Unit within the British Irish Secretariat or a new North/South Body could be established to fulfil this role, the report says.

Each individual victim and survivor, who wished to receive an acknowledgement, could identify themselves to the Acknowledgement Unit, who would then verify the incident and issue a letter of apology.

This would provide each individual victim and survivor with an official letter and official documentation confirming the incident and an apology for the loss, suffering, injury, trauma or hurt that was caused during the Troubles.

TRUTH: Victims and survivors need to hear the truth of what happened to them or their loved one, according to the report, published today.

The key questions that need to be answered are:

  • What happened?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Who was responsible?

The Commission says victims and survivors are entitled to as much information as possible in relation to the incident where it still exists or where it is still available. "Information about violent acts in the past, while being valuable, can stimulate and renew a sense of violation and outrage in society." The Commission recommends that an Independent Commission is established in Northern Ireland with the remit to compile (a) composite narrative.

JUSTICE: The services currently in place to deliver justice are a significant part of acknowledging and dealing with the past, according to the Commission.

It says the issues and processes involved are complex and in some cases, lengthy and expensive. The Commission says that in relation to delivering justice for victims and survivors, a more strategic and co-ordinated approach is required.

It recommends the establishment of one overarching organisation, under the remit of the Department of Justice, with the powers to investigate, co-ordinate and report on the provision of justice for all historical cases in relation to the conflict.

This organisation would encompass the roles of the current organisations involved with policing the past.

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