The people most grievously injured during the Troubles are being denied “a little bit of dignity” in their twilight years because of ongoing disagreements over who will fund a victims’ payment scheme, a group which advocates for victims has said.
Alan McBride from Wave Trauma Centre said he is “beside himself” with rage after an announcement from Finance Minister Conor Murphy that it was up to the UK government “to provide the necessary funding” for a scheme which had been set to get underway in March.
In a statement on Monday night, the Northern Ireland Office said the Secretary of State “has always been clear” that Stormont must fund the scheme - which could cost £800m - from the block grant.
A court ruling in March said the Executive had acted unlawfully in delaying the introduction of the scheme after legislation was approved by Westminster in January 2020.
Mr McBride, whose wife Sharon was murdered in the Shankill bombing in Belfast in 1993, said Wave approached Westminster after years of failing to reach an agreement with the DUP and Sinn Fein.
“Our politicians have to wake up and see that the people who are being disadvantaged in this are the most injured - double amputees, blind, deaf, mental health conditions, those are the people who are having to suffer,” he said.
“The money that they were promised is the pension isn’t a huge amount of money, you’re talking about £2,000 to £10,000 pounds a year. It would have given these people a little bit of dignity at the end of their lives.
“Many of them are well up in years and are looking for a little bit to hand on to the family or to put a few slates on the roof, take the grandkids for an ice-cream, the things so many of us take for granted,” he said.
Mr McBride called on the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to engage with the First and deputy First Minister on the issue.
“He needs to be part of the conversation and he should have done that all along. The sensible solution would be that the British government would put up some of the money upfront and that the Executive could take it on thereafter,” he said.
“Brandon Lewis is sticking to his guns by saying the Executive has the responsibility for implementing the legislation and he’s right in that. For the NI Executive not to do this, it means they’ll be in default of this legislation and this will end up back in court.
“Politicians need to get around the table and sort this out,” he added.
Victims’ campaigner Alex Bunting (67) lost his leg in 1991 when the IRA planted a bomb in his taxi and said people like him have “jumped through every hoop” fighting for the pension.
He said the pension would mean he could pay privately for an operation on his spine, the latest in a series of procedures over the years. He is currently unable to walk.
Leftover shrapnel and metal in his body means Mr Bunting often has to pay privately for scans and healthcare because of lengthy waiting lists.
“I was told before Christmas that it would be done as soon as possible in January and then I get word to say everything has been cancelled, so I’m back to square one and I’m literally in pain. If I had my pension I would be able to do it privately and I would pay for it tomorrow,” he said.
“[The pension] would be a couple of hundred quid a week for some people. This could be funded for a short period of time until it was sorted out. In law, the assembly has to pay it,” he said.
Everyone who is part of the WAVE group is severely injured and all are 50 or over, Mr Bunting said. he believes there is in the region of 500 severely injured victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland - “the most severely injured, people who are blind or paralysed, who have no limbs”, he said.
“We’re never ever going to get any better unless there’s a miracle or someone can give you your legs back,” he said. “[The scheme] would only run for 20 to 30 years and it would be done.
“It knocks you out, it wrecks you. We’ve worked and worked at this.”
Whatever sum he would be awarded by the scheme “wouldn’t be enough money for me to run around the world,” he said. “My wife is my carer and she has been for 30 years. We live on ESA, benefits and PIP. I can tell you it’s hard to get through on that.”
Before Mr Bunting was injured 29 years ago, his wife had her own job, as did he.
“My wife gets £69 a week carer’s allowance. Because of what happened, I’m now pension age, and I will go onto the pension and that’s all I have to live on, I think it’s £170 a week. It’s very hard,” he said. UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt suggested the £150m provided for legacy bodies under the Stormont House Agreement could provide a short-term way forward on scheme.
“It is a stain on devolution that injured Troubles victims are still waiting for redress. There is not only a strong moral obligation to provide the payment scheme; the courts have handed down a legal obligation too,” he said.
“Process must not be allowed to trump the needs of the people we are elected to serve, so we simply must identify a way to start the funding pipeline flowing.
”After five years of attempts to find a way forward on truth and justice mechanisms, the funding could now be used to provide short-term relief until another method of funding the scheme is agreed, he said.
“Many of the victims were given derisory compensation in the aftermath of their injury, have had to struggle through decades with little to no support and often been left severely out of pocket due to the realities of living with a life-changing injury. The Executive and UK Government cannot continue to let them down.” he said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP called on Mr Murphy to address the needs of victims and survivors by making a budgetary allocation to the payment scheme, saying it was a “disgrace” things had been allowed to go on so long.
”The finance minister needs to step up and make an initial budgetary allocation to the scheme in the first instance – it would be a gross dereliction of duty if we reach March with no plan in place to make the scheme operable.
”But fundamentally, the British government cannot absolve itself of responsibility to these victims. The legislation was passed in Westminster, the buck cannot now be passed to the Executive alone.
”The Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Finance need to sit down and reach an equitable resolution to this challenge,” he said.
TUV spokesman John Brennan said Sinn Fein sought to delay the designation of a department to take the scheme forward - a move which “stymied the implementation of the scheme” in order to push Mr Lewis to change it.
”Now that even though the Department of Justice has been nominated to administer the pension, the Sinn Fein finance minister has failed to allocate funding for it. Many will suspect that Sinn Fein are still seeking to include victim makers within the scope of the pension the price for paying it at all,” he said.
”A society can be judged by how it treats the most vulnerable and those who have suffered most. By that yardstick there can be no doubt that Stormont has failed.”
In response, Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon said the current legislation was drafted without any consultation with the Executive or local parties.
”Accordingly, in line with the British government’s own Statement of Funding Policy, it is their responsibility to provide the necessary funding for the scheme,” she said.
The party’s position remains that the scheme should be made available to all victims, she said.
”The sole criteria should be need in line with the legal definition of a victim outlined in the Victims and Survivors [NI] Order . The provision of these payments would represent recognition that the experiences of injured victims are acknowledged, their victimhood publicly validated and their voices heard,” she said