Belfast Telegraph

'I couldn't care less if someone's jailed for my shooting, it's not going to bring back power of my legs' - victims' campaigner Paul Gallagher backing new Troubles pension

We talk to Paul Gallagher, who became a victims' campaigner after a loyalist gun attack on his home left him in a wheelchair. Paul, who is married to Sammie, recalls the night his life changed forever, how he refused to let anger and bitterness consume him and why he is backing the controversial Troubles pension

Paul Gallagher, PhD candidate at Queen’s and a transformative justice, victims and social justice campaigner in Belfast
Paul Gallagher, PhD candidate at Queen’s and a transformative justice, victims and social justice campaigner in Belfast
Paul and Sammie on their wedding day in 2016
The couple celebrate his graduation from Queen’s University in 2016
Victims and Survivors Commissioner Judith Thompson (back, third from left) with (back row) Sam Wilson, Margaret Yeaman and Minty Thompson, and (front) Paul Gallagher, Peter Heathwood and Jennifer McNern

By Donna Deeney

Q. You were 21 when loyalist terrorists burst into your house in west Belfast in 1994, posing as the IRA and holding your family hostage. What was going through your mind for that hour when the gunmen were there?

A. There were a lot of emotions, first of all fear. When they came in I didn't know who they were or what they were there for.

They told us they were the IRA and that they were there to carry out an operation, and to sit down and shut up, which is what we did.

We sat and watched The Crystal Maze on TV and had our dinner.

We didn't think we were a target. We were in Lenadoon and thought they would do whatever they were doing, leave and that would be the end of it.

Q. Who was with you?

A. I was sitting there with my mother Mary Jane, my brother Damien, who was then 18, and sister Joanne, who was 14 at the time.

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Joanne was getting a bit upset and I was trying to keep her calm. The gunman in the room with us, while others were upstairs, had his gun pointed at her and I asked him to point his gun down to keep her calm.

The door bell went after about 15 minutes and I was told to go out and bring in whoever was there or my family would be shot.

It was my father Paul at the door - he had been out with friends and had a few beers. He was arguing with them and told them to get out of his house.

One of them put a gun with a long barrel to his forehead and said if he valued his life he would sit down and shut up, which he did.

After about an hour one of them kicked in the door and shouted "operation's over" and began shooting.

As you can imagine it was sheer pandemonium in the room.

Q. When did you realise you had been shot?

A. My mum asked: "Is everyone okay?" And I was sitting there thinking: "I am not okay, there is something wrong." But it took them a few seconds to realise I had been shot.

They phoned the ambulance and they were frantic in the room.

My brother slapped me around the head and tried to keep me awake, my father tied towels around the wounds to try and stop the flow of the blood while they waited on the ambulance.

I remember going into surgery and woke up a couple of days later with a ventilator down my throat, not knowing why I was shot, and wondered why the IRA shot me.

Then I was told it was the UDA that had done it - C Company of the UFF - and I was shot just because I was a Catholic.

Q. How difficult was it for you to come to terms with the loss of your mobility?

A.  I didn't realise I was paralysed for about four or five days.

I was lying there in intensive care with a fever from a chest infection. They were trying to keep me alive and I think it was when I was stabilised a few days later that they told me I would never walk again. That was harder for me to take than finding out I had been shot.

I was 21 years of age, I was able to comprehend it and couldn't talk about it because I had this tube down my throat. I was communicating with an A4 page with the alphabet on it.

I think I lay there and cried for a couple of days. It was only later that I started making sense of it and said to myself: "Well you are alive, you'll go to Musgrave, go through the rehab and, okay, there is a wheelchair, but you have a good family around you."

Q. Who or what helped you get through those early days?

A. When I look back, it was the support of the people around me. Waking up in hospital for the first time, there was a young fella, a nurse, holding my hand and wiping my brow, telling me I was all right. I remember him being like an angel before my family came in.

I obviously had support of family, wider family and a big circle of friends.

When I came out of Musgrave hospital six months later the lads all took me out to Tenerife for a fortnight.

They got me on to the plane. I was still covered in holes and had to get my wounds treated every day. They were my doctors and nurses, they helped me get to the toilet and all sorts.

Getting out of hospital, we had no care, but the community centre got me and the wheelchair up in the minibus and the taxi firm my dad had worked for gave him free taxis to go up and down to the hospital every day.

Q. What had life been like for you before you were attacked?

A. We lived in Lenadoon, it was a peaceline, it was a war zone.

I was told I was dodging bullets for years. We lived near Woodbourne police station and apparently when I was in my highchair a stray bullet came in through the window and lodged in the wall above my head.

Outside our front door Julie Livingstone (left), a 14-year-old killed in 1981, was hit with a plastic bullet, so this was how we grew up.

It was a normal life in an abnormal situation. Our escape was to go into the town around Queen's and have a drink and meet people from across the community.

Q. Did anyone face justice for the attack on you?

A. No. The police came and interviewed me about a month afterwards in Musgrave hospital.

They were there for an hour and asked me what happened. That was the last time I saw the police. That was that, case closed.

Q. How do you feel about that?

A. At the time I thought it was okay, they are doing what they are doing, then time went on and it was moving into the peace process and Good Friday Agreement and prisoners were getting out of jail.

I voted for that, I wanted it all to end.

I couldn't care less if someone is put in jail for what happened to me but that's me personally.

It's not going to bring back the power of my legs or what I have lost. I get justice by making sure people like me and others are looked after and not forgotten about.

Q.  What persuaded you to become a victims' champion?

A. It has been 25 years since I was shot and for years I just got on with my life, never thinking of myself as a victim, but it was around the Eames/Bradley (2009 report on the Troubles).

It was on TV and there were people there screaming and shouting and arguing over victims. That spurred me into thinking: "Are these the arguments about victims?"

So I decided maybe a more calming voice was needed to try and talk to these people.

It was more about trying to get to know people, hear their voice and let them hear mine so we could come to some sort of understanding of how to deal with this stuff, rather than the screaming and shouting.

For me, it was trying to bring a new voice.

Q. One of your big passions is securing pensions for victims of the Troubles. What are your thoughts on last week's developments?

A. It is a culmination of years of hard work.

This didn't happen overnight.

In Eames/Bradley a lot of the recognition payments were for all the bereaved but there was nothing there for those who were injured.

This spurred a grievance and spurred people into seeking recognition and for people to go out and start petitions for about a year.

This led to work into the needs of the injured and one of these things was a pension and securing services.

The pension became an issue, people thought it could be done and a report was done in 2014.

This latest report is an update of the report done by us in 2014 for OFMDFM.

I know there is disagreement with the definition of "victim" but that is a side issue, a political issue, that can be dealt with by politicians. As far as I am concerned there is a definition of "victim" there and for me it is enough.

Q. You said you have no issue with terrorists getting the pension too, but this rankles with others. Do you understand their anger?

A. Of course, of course. My view is at one end of the scale and their view is at the other.

We both see it from different angles and I totally see the hurt that this would cause, but I also see the hurt that not doing something is causing as well.

There has been compromises over the years and the sky hasn't caved in.

Q. Do you think the issue of legacy will ever be resolved? And what will it take?

A. I think it takes political leadership. There are a whole number of issues that people want.

There are people who want investigations into what happened their loved ones and there are people like me who don't want any investigation.

I just want to know the truth about why they did it - if they could give me a reason for shooting me.

Was it just because I was a Catholic and they didn't want to leave without shooting someone, plain and simple?

This would put my mind at rest. Other people want to be able to tell their story like I am able to do, sitting here talking to you, and in the WAVE injured book.

There are loads of narratives out there and the more we get to hear them the better.

Q. Before the attack you had aspirations to become a chef. Do you still have an interest in cooking?

A. I still love cooking. It is a passion of mine.

I am a very good cook. I make Sunday dinner every week for 12 people along with my wife.

I got married to Sammie in October 2016. She is a good east Belfast Protestant girl. East met west and it's all good.

We met on Facebook at the time of the flag protests in 2012. I put up what I thought was a humorous comment about the protests and she liked the comment.

We met up after that and the rest is history.

Q. As well as getting married in 2016, you graduated from Queen's University. Tell us about that.

A. I graduated with a degree in Trauma Studies. The year after that I did a Masters and I am now doing my PhD so it has moved on from the degree.

I got the education bug and haven't been able to leave. It has kept me busy, my career as a chef is over, but you never know, I could have a career in academia.

Q. Given the experiences you have had, it would be very easy to wallow in self-pity. Is it hard to stay positive?

A. I was always fairly easy-going. Bad things happen and you get on with it. When this happened it was something similar.

When I first came out of hospital things were tough and I would have had revenge thoughts about going out and finding the people who did this and paralysing them.

I wanted them to feel what it was like, but those sorts of thoughts are only going to eat away at you and poison you and fill you with anger, hatred and bitterness.

To me those emotions were only going to harm me and my family and people around me.

When I started to get involved with the victims, I also started getting involved with cross-community work and I joined the interface group.

I have younger nieces and nephews and when they were growing up they were asking questions about what happened to me.

I didn't want them harbouring any bitterness so it was about being an example to them.

That mushroomed into trying to use what happened to me as something positive and to say: "This happened to me but I have made a difference."

I have made changes in my life and can see things a different way and hopefully I can lead by example and people can be inspired by the way I have dealt with things and they can see they don't have to hold bitterness.

People need to get off their high horses and to realise it's not always personal.

For me it was personal.

I was shot because I was a Catholic, but there is more to me than that.

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