Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Former bombers are showered in cash, while Omagh bomb victims must prove they deserve compensation ... a double standard that would make even Kafka blush

Take the money back from those who should never have had it in the first place and give it to those who should never have been forced to wait for it, says Eilis O'Hanlon

It's been 20 years since the Omagh massacre. In that time, there have been four prime ministers, four first ministers, four taoisigh and no fewer than 10 secretaries of state for Northern Ireland. Those who were children at the time have gone through school and university, grown up, started families of their own. The world is a different place.

But still some victims of the 1998 attack by the Real IRA are waiting for compensation as the Co Tyrone town marks the 20th anniversary of the atrocity today.

To make matters worse, some of those who were made to wait longest to get what is rightfully theirs were among the most seriously injured in the blast.

Donna Marie McGillion, now 42, suffered burns to most of her body and was given only a 20% chance of survival. It took her 14 years to receive appropriate compensation, an experience she describes as "so, so traumatic and so long and drawn out".

"There is an onus on you to prove everything," is how she puts it, perfectly summing up what many of those who suffered at the hands of homegrown terrorists increasingly feel, namely that it's they who have to justify their very existence, while the self-serving word of those who ruined their lives is accepted without question.

Thankfully, Donna Marie had a good solicitor to guide her through the process, but sometimes even that's not enough to get satisfaction. The Department of Justice has confirmed that two cases arising from the Omagh bombing, which murdered 31 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, are outstanding.

That's two victims who, years after being caught up in one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, are still being asked to "prove" their entitlement to help. To say that's two too many doesn't get near to describing the injustice of it all.

It doesn't matter how often one hears about the raw deal faced by victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland, it still never fails to shock when the extent of the unfairness is laid bare in this way. There appears to be endless amounts of cash available to throw at those who don't deserve it.

So-called "community groups" - some involving hangers-on who, all things considered, should probably still be in jail for the crimes they committed - have enriched themselves enormously by working the system in their favour.

Plenty of middle-class professionals are also making a comfortable living from managing these legacy issues in the public sector. The only ones who've been forgotten, as free money is scattered around like confetti at a wedding, are the actual victims. Those who suffered are supposed be reassured by the fact they have a Commission for Victims and Survivors batting on their behalf, but what does that office actually do? If people who've been seriously injured by terrorists can be ignored for decades, then what is it even for?

If there's one thing on which both sides of the political divide ought to be able to agree it's that the victims of terrorism should be treated with decency. It's not as if there aren't huge numbers of families affected.

More than 3,700 people died during the Troubles and a further 35,000 were injured. But while victims are pushed to the forefront of the political agenda periodically, there's never any follow-up to ensure they stay there. The bereaved and injured are left in limbo.

Being forced to fight for what should have been freely given years ago fixes them back in a moment in their lives that they'd rather forget. They must relive that day endlessly. Ongoing financial hardship and delays in medical treatment only add to their distress.

On the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, the authorities were criticised for not finding suitable accommodation for all the families displaced by the fire within a year, as promised.

Critics of the Government said victims had been let down by the system and few would quarrel with that. Now, multiply that 12-month-long wait by a factor of 20: that's what some victims of the Omagh bombing have had to endure. Yet, it causes little more than a shrug of resignation in political circles when it ought to cause collective shame.

It's not only the people of Omagh who've been abandoned. Jayne Olurunda's Nigeria-born father, Max, burned to death in January 1980 after the train on which he was travelling was blown up by the IRA in what it later claimed was an accident caused by the "war situation".

Her mother suffered undiagnosed post-traumatic stress in the aftermath, as a result of which Jayne and her two sisters endured a dreadful childhood. They tried "numerous times" to get someone to care, she later recalled, but "we have never been helped".

Provo bomber Patrick Flynn served a mere six years in jail for that attack, which also killed a Protestant teenager by the name of Mark Cochrane. In 2016, Flynn's daughter was selected as a Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast, while the Olurundas were reportedly planning to leave Northern Ireland.

There are countless, heart-rending stories such as this, but every effort to show compassion to innocents caught up in events over which they had no control invariably founders on an altar of moral equivalence, as those who carried out the violence try to appropriate the role of victims for their own sick ends.

The 2009 report by former churchmen Lord Eames and Denis Bradley on dealing with the past was ultimately rejected by a majority in Northern Ireland, because it proposed giving a £12,000 payment to the nearest relative of everyone killed in violence since 1966, regardless of who they were, or how they died.

Here's a radical proposal: why not just adopt the definition of a victim as understood by most ordinary people? In other words, accept that there is, indeed, a hierarchy of victims - and rightfully so - and that the most deserving of sympathy and help are those who were killed, or injured, through no fault of their own, rather than losing life and limb as a result of being up to no good.

Taking that approach would have ensured that victims of the Omagh bombing received every assistance when they most needed it, rather than being made to feel, as Donna Marie McGillion describes it, that they are "begging".

Money is no object when it comes to buying off former bombers. Why not just take it back from those who should never have had it in the first place and give it to those who should never have been made to wait?

Belfast Telegraph

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