Alban Maginness: James Nesbitt is right to raise the plight of victims who live with the Troubles' legacy on a daily basis
Westminster must act now to ease the agony of the forgotten survivors of decades of violence, says Alban Maginness
James Nesbitt is not just a successful actor who has deservedly won the affection of the public, but a great humanitarian who is not afraid to speak out and act as an advocate for the voiceless and marginalised in our society.
His empathy for the underdog was exemplified some years ago when he spoke out for the families of the Disappeared as they were campaigning for more detailed information surrounding the final resting places of their loved ones from the IRA, which had secretly buried them in the most remote parts of the Irish countryside.
Last week, Mr Nesbitt visited the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to launch an impressive portrait exhibition of 10 victims who were very severely injured in the Troubles.
During this emotional public event, he listened with great sympathy to the harrowing experiences of victims of the Troubles, still suffering even today from physical and mental pain inflicted many years ago in the violence.
He made a heartfelt plea for the introduction by the State of special pensions to help the most seriously injured victims of the Troubles in order for them to cope with their horrendous injuries as they approach the end of their lives.
He said that victims weren't looking for sympathy, or pity, despite living through "experiences that almost defied imagination".
Of all those who suffered directly as a result of the Troubles, it is undoubtedly the thousands of victims of paramilitary violence who have suffered most. Their injuries are many and varied, but there is a small and special group of victims of the Troubles who have been so severely injured that they have been forced to campaign over the past number of years to receive a pension that could relieve their continued suffering in their declining years.
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According to the WAVE Trauma Centre, of which Mr Nesbitt is patron, around 500 severely injured victims of the Troubles face living out their latter years on modest incomes. Therefore, they are pushing for a separate pension for those permanently injured and severely disabled.
While many received criminal injuries compensation years ago, this compensation has by now been exhausted. This compensation turned out to be inadequate, not least because it was calculated on the basis that these victims were not expected to survive into old age.
But, because of wonderful medical advances, remarkably, they have survived into old age. However, they have entered into old age without the financial security that they might otherwise have enjoyed if they had been capable of working throughout their lives.
Alan McBride, whose wife, Sharon, and father-in-law, Desmond Frizzell, were killed in the Shankill Bomb, and who co-ordinates the injured victims' campaign group at WAVE, described how there has been an insolvable stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein over who should be eligible for such a pension.
Because of this impasse, the victims campaigners are of a mind that, if these two local parties still fail to agree on this issue, Westminster should step in and legislate, because the plight of the severely injured is as much a legacy issue as anything else, and should properly be addressed at Westminster.
They do not see this as undermining devolution, and believe that it would be scandalous if the plight of these victims was to continue to be neglected.
Given the unlikely restoration of the Assembly for a very long time, they believe it imperative that the British Government now legislates for this discrete group of severely injured victims, who continue to suffer grievously as a result of the shameful political failure of the two major parties to agree.
Naturally, there is a profound sense of hurt and disappointment among these victims about the way their needs have been so badly neglected. There is also a striking sense of abandonment.
One such victim is Mary Hannon-Fletcher, injured in a drive-by shooting when she was a teenager in 1975. She was paralysed as result of this shooting.
She said: "Every day, all of us are living in pain and suffering. On top of that, we have been ignored and left alone to suffer and struggle by ourselves."
Mark Kelly, who lost his legs in a no-warning bomb attack on the Glen Inn in Glengormley, added: "At times, it feels like we are knocking our heads against a brick wall, but we are survivors and we are persistent."
The time has come to end the excessive delay in establishing a special pension for those, like Mary Hannon-Fletcher and Mark Kelly, who are still enduring the wounds of the Troubles.
As Christmas rapidly approaches, we should be more sensitive to their plight, and actively support Mr Nesbitt's courageous humanitarian plea to end this outrageous scandal.