Disparity between support for English victims of blood scandal and others a disgrace, probe told
The Government has been accused of creating a hierarchy among contaminated blood victims by allowing varying support payments across the UK.
A haemophiliac, who along with his twin brother contracted hepatitis C from polluted blood products, accused ministers of "reprehensible and shameful" behaviour for a funding disparity that has resulted in sufferers in England being paid more.
Nigel Hamilton's hard-hitting testimony to the Infected Blood Inquiry came as Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told another local victim of the scandal that the best way of securing added support was through the restoration of a devolved government at Stormont.
The man, known as Mr I, accused Mrs Bradley of treating victims like a "political football".
The power-sharing crisis is currently preventing enhanced support payments being offered to people living with the consequences of contaminated blood treatment here.
Mr Hamilton, from Co Antrim, said victims in Scotland and Wales were also not being treated equally as a result of the Government move.
"If I lived in England, the recognition of my victimhood would be different," he told the inquiry, which is this week sitting in Belfast.
"But in Northern Ireland, like those in Scotland and Wales, all victims of this same National Health Service disaster appear not worthy of equal financial support during the lifetime of this inquiry. That is a sad reflection of my government, which has now created a hierarchy of victims under the pretence of it being a devolved matter. That to me as an act is reprehensible."
Thousands of patients were infected with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s. Around 2,400 people died.
At the outset of the inquiry, the Government announced a rise in the level of financial support offered to those impacted. However, that only affected victims in England, with the devolved regions told to make their own decisions on support.
Mr Hamilton, a 58-year-old out-of-work businessman from Islandmagee and a former DUP mayor of Newtownabbey, needed a liver transplant after developing cirrhosis and then cancer of his old liver.
He described the scandal as a "national disaster" and said while he would never get justice for what was "ripped" from his life, he hoped he would secure closure through the inquiry.
His twin brother Simon Hamilton, who is currently being treated for liver cirrhosis, has held meetings with Government ministers in London, including de facto Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington, to press for parity across the UK. Outside the inquiry yesterday, Simon Hamilton, from Ballymena, said: "Unfortunately devolution has got in the way and unfortunately there has been dragging of feet despite the commitments."
He added: "The numbers of victims infected and affected in England are much greater. We have a small community of sufferers here and those people who would be affected in this current disparity amount to about 100 people. We are talking about a budget to support people of somewhere in the region of £800,000.
"In England, the budget is £45m and the uplift is £37m roughly. In Northern Ireland, the uplift would be the equivalent of £600,000 - that's a drop in the ocean and to be perfectly frank and if we were (using it) to fill the holes in some of our roads, we wouldn't get very far.
"So it's not an exorbitant amount of money. But the reality is the impact on people's lives would be enormous."
Another haemophiliac who contracted hepatitis C from contaminated products, who gave evidence to the inquiry anonymously, shared a letter he had received from Mrs Bradley. In the letter, shown to the inquiry panel, she said she empathised with victims and was "keeping a close eye" on developments. She added: "It is only right that those whose lives have been blighted should receive the care and assistance they need. Of course, the best means of supporting victims in Northern Ireland is via a functioning Assembly in which locally elected ministers can speak up and act on their behalf. That is why securing a successful outcome to the talks process (to restore devolution) is my absolute priority."
Mr I claimed the issue was being used to force politicians to strike a deal on power-sharing. "It's just being stalled again, it will be held back and used as a political football to try and get politicians with no relevance to this inquiry back around the table," he said.