Consultation on Northern Ireland legacy issues so low-key it risks being overlooked by victims, says watchdog
Northern Ireland's Victims Commissioner has warned of the danger of a poor response rate to the Government's public consultation on legacy issues.
Judith Thompson today expressed her fears that a low-key information campaign could result in thousands of victims missing out on the chance to have their say on the proposed new institutions to deal with the past.
- Community leaders must do more to bring about resolutions
- Concerted outreach needed to engage with those still suffering
Describing it as "the most important public consultation since the Good Friday Agreement", Ms Thompson said it was vital victims came forward with their views in the next seven weeks before the consultation ends.
She called on the Government, local politicians, councils and other groups to support more events to reach out to the thousands of victims who have never told their story but have a "major contribution" to make.
She was speaking as details of a survey were released showing that just over a quarter of people (26%) here said they were affected by the conflict and 58% thought it either very important or important to deal with the past. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed (73%) said they supported a pension for the severely injured.
The survey was carried out by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA)last autumn. It showed varying degrees of support for the legacy institutions contained in the Stormont House Agreement.
There was 55% support for the establishment of a Historical Investigations Unit; 37% for the Implementation and Reconciliation Group, and 33% for the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.
The consultation on the proposed legacy institutions will end on September 10, Ms Thompson said. "This is probably the most important public consultation process since the Good Friday Agreement referendum. Yet the lack of a high-profile public information campaign could result in thousands of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland missing out on the opportunity to have a say on the institutions designed to give them access to justice, information and services."
The consultation was "our best opportunity to have a meaningful say in the design and delivery of the proposed institutions", she said.
Yet local politicians had been "virtually silent" on the need for individual victims who weren't involved in groups to be informed and encouraged to have their say on the future institutions, Ms Thompson stated.
"To date, the public debate has centred around an issue that is not in the proposed legislation. A statute of limitations or an amnesty for security services cannot be delivered in isolation from others who have caused harm.
"This is a distraction that is in danger of generating a disproportionate response to the consultation from Great Britain and will effectively turn off potential respondents in Northern Ireland," she said.
The Victims Commissioner announced the launch of a series of outreach events across Northern Ireland.
While various victims' organisations did tremendous work and represented up to 20,000 people, more than 200,000 individuals had been affected by the conflict, she noted. "These are the silent majority who need to be supported and we cannot expect them to be engaged with a single Government announcement and referral to a website," she added.
Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United said: "The opening of the Government's consultation over the summer months always meant it would be challenging to mobilise victims and survivors."
He said his group had held eight consultation events in Northern Ireland, Dublin, and Britain so far, attended by 510 victims.
"Certainly no victims of terrorism are doing cartwheels about the institutions proposed in the consultation document. There is also anger among victims in the Republic that the document encourages a response from those in the UK but ignores them."
Victims and Survivors Forum member Emmett McConomy described the "very muted" launch of the Government's consultation period as disappointing.
"This is a great opportunity for victims to have their voices recorded - it's the first chance in 30 years," he said.
"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking part. We're very good at complaining in this country but now we have a chance to do something about it. Nobody should sit on the fence.
"The low-key launch of the legacy consultation has caused it to go the radar of some. But I hope the uptake will be huge and there is an onus on victims and survivors to come forward."
Mr McConomy was seven-years-old when his 11-year-old brother Stephen was killed by a plastic bullet fired by a British soldier just yards from his home in the Bogside. He was shot in the head. No soldier has ever been charged in connection with his death.