Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: How do you break deadlock over Troubles' pensions? Simple. Exclude wounded terrorists

But will a weak Government have the resolve to make that call, or will it duck the challenge once again, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar bomb in Belfast on March 4, 1972
An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar bomb in Belfast on March 4, 1972
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The wrangling over how those killed and injured in the Troubles should be recompensed for the lost years of their working lives has been going on for years now and it keeps coming back to the same question: who is a victim? Should innocent casualties and far-from-innocent paramilitaries be treated the same?

Most people are instinctively horrified at any such idea. But Victims' Commissioner Judith Thompson had few words of comfort for them on Wednesday's Good Morning Ulster.

Asked whether wounded terrorists would also receive pensions under her new proposals, the commissioner would only say that this call was for politicians to make, before admitting that there "may be discomfort" in the final answers.

That discomfort won't be evenly felt, though, will it?

Sinn Fein won't feel the slightest bit discomfited if it's decided that IRA volunteers should qualify for a pension.

Loyalists won't lose any sleep if one of their own gets the same monthly payouts as a man or woman gunned down in a sectarian attack.

The discomfort will be entirely felt by innocent families, whose injuries will be added the insult of being put on a level playing field with convicted murderers.

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Some have already said they would refuse pensions in such circumstances, however desperately they need the money to help care for loved ones.

It's a tough one. The Geneva Conventions do not extend to terrorists, but everyone is treated alike in hospital, even in some of the most vicious theatres of war, such as Israel.

Former terrorists also enjoy the protection of the law in other walks of life. That's the mark of a civilised society and it shouldn't be any other way; but a right to medical care and fair treatment under the law cannot include an automatic entitlement to a pension for acts in which one was a willing participant.

Drunk-drivers are unlikely to receive sympathy if they're injured in an accident which they caused.

Passengers in a crashed car driven by a drunk-driver may even find their own compensation reduced because they are deemed to have contributory negligence. Surely, that principle ought to apply even more strongly in cases of terrorism, otherwise there's a risk of legitimising and rewarding criminal behaviour?

Former Home Secretary Ken Clarke changed the law in England and Wales in 2011 to prevent guilty offenders from running to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

Now it's made clear that recompense is for "blameless victims of crimes of violence" and may be refused if the claimant was "acting in an aggressive or threatening way". Previous convictions are also taken into consideration, with a sliding scale of seriousness.

That seems an entirely reasonable rule of thumb and, if we're honest, the only reason it doesn't apply when it comes to victims of violence during the Troubles is because that would be politically awkward.

Genuine victims make far less fuss than paramilitary mouthpieces, making them easier to ignore.

That's why it's proven so difficult to come to an agreement, despite years of toing and froing. It's impossible to detangle the question of pensions from the wider legacy issues.

It ultimately comes down to who controls the narrative of history. Those who speak on behalf of paramilitaries aren't intent on winning pensions for former members because they care deeply about their welfare, but because winning that fight would set up a moral equivalence between terrorist and victim.

Once perpetrators are accepted as injured parties, they will have completed a journey which began with the get-out-of-jail-free cards issued under the Belfast Agreement.

Judith Thompson's argument is that victims cannot afford to wait while this dilemma is resolved. She makes a persuasive point. Those who suffered "permanent" and "severe" harm need help right now. It's shameful that blameless casualties have in turn become lifelong prisoners of a political impasse.

Insofar as the Victims' Commissioner says there could be movement on legislation before the end of the year, better still, though that does seem far-fetched, considering the continuing stalemate at Stormont.

Westminster may force it through, but that could be risky for the new Prime Minister, who'll have enough on his plate with Brexit in the coming months. The only way to get this passed quickly is to exclude paramilitaries, as has been done in other countries as diverse as Colombia, Peru and Spain, where similar schemes were set up after protracted conflicts and members of illegal groups were explicitly excluded from becoming beneficiaries. A single line added to the legislation would break the deadlock.

If it can be done there, it can be done here; but will a weak government have the resolve to make that call, or duck the challenge again and simply tag it onto the ever-growing list of items on the talks agenda?

There's certainly no justice in saying that genuine victims should simply pipe down in order to get this across the line.

There may be relatively few former paramilitaries in the frame for pensions at the moment, but everyone knows what will happen once the principle is conceded: those proverbial floodgates will open. The moral hazard is too great.

Whatever happens, the deeper questions will not go away.

If anything, they may be about to get more difficult.

Ms Thompson does not believe that including former combatants in the pensions scheme is to "morally equate" innocent victims and terrorists. She's entitled to her opinion. But it may actually be more iniquitous than that.

If one looks at pensions as a form of reparations, then the usual principle is that those responsible for the harm are expected to pay the bill.

In Northern Ireland, 90% of all victims were killed, or injured, by "non-state actors", but there's no suggestion here that anyone other than the state should pay. If this scheme is intended to provide some small measure of financial security to victims and their families, shouldn't republicans and loyalists also make an appropriate contribution, since they were responsible for the lion's share of deaths and injuries?

Why must they always cash in, but never chip in?

The one benefit may be to flush out some notable personages who have always denied being members of paramilitary organisations. If they think there's some money to be made from finally owning up, perhaps they, too, will be queuing up to admit that they were "soldiers", to use IRA bomber-turned-MEP Martina Anderson's disingenuous word.

Then again, why should they? The Provisionals already have the stolen Northern Bank money to pay pensions to their volunteers.

They don't need another one paid for by victims.

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