Mike Nesbitt: 47,000 injured in the Troubles risk becoming forgotten tribe
As the Northern Ireland Office invites you to tell it how you want the government to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, Ulster Unionist MLA and former Victims Commissioner Mike Nesbitt shares his concerns about the new bodies proposed in the consultation document
This is a true story. At the height of our "Troubles" in the early 1970s, a man went to say goodbye to his wife as he set off for his nightshift. But she was too busy changing the baby's nappy, so he just kissed her on the top of the head and told her he'd see her later. He was dead within the hour, murdered by terrorists.
Many years later, the widow took a cold call from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). She had never heard of them, so the officer explained they were a branch of the police who reviewed the case files of every conflict-related murder and her late husband was next on the list. She told them not to bother. She had moved on, remarried, was far too focused on her grandchildren to rake over the past. But the officer explained she could not stop them, it was their duty to open the box file, he simply wanted to know if she had any lingering questions she would like them to try to answer. She said she wanted nothing to do with it and hung up.
A few months later, the HET rang back, a courtesy call to say they had completed their review and the report had been written up. Human nature being what it is, she changed her mind and asked to read it. It largely confirmed what she had believed for over three decades. Her husband went to work, a car pulled up, a man in a balaclava got out of the back, approached her husband, produced a handgun and shot him in the chest three times from point-blank range. Her one crumb of comfort over all those years was that her husband was dead before he hit the tarmac. But what she read was that he lay, screaming her name, as he bled to death over the next fifteen minutes. Naturally, this was a dreadful shock and only served to retraumatise another innocent victim.
What I wish for is a set of proposals that pass the Northern Ireland Office's own test, which is that the proposals are "balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable". This is demonstrably not the case, especially with regard to the lead body, the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU). People need to be clear in understanding the HIU is intended to be a parallel police force, operating independently of the PSNI, but with the same powers, including the power of arrest and the same facilities, including holding cells.
The HIU is intended to be the once-and-for-all process of forensically examining conflict-related deaths, of which there were approximately 3,500. But there is no provision for the injured. If you were tarred and feathered and left psychologically damaged for life, don't bother knocking the HIU's door; you survived, so they are not interested. If your "crime" was to pop out of work at lunchtime for a sandwich only to lose your legs in a no warning car bomb, the HIU is not interested in delivering you justice. If you were dragged down a dark alley and had your kneecaps blown off, be prepared for the brush off from the HIU; it's not there for you. And if your life was scarred through a sex crime committed by a terrorist and covered up by his organisation, tough luck.
Do not forget the injured.
The police estimate some 47,000 people suffered conflict-related injuries. How on earth can you argue it is balanced to ignore them? What is fair or equitable about looking them in the eye and saying, sorry this process isn't for you. It is perverse to limit the scope of our determination to deal with the past in a manner that denies this proposed new resource to those who have suffered most down the decades and continue to suffer.
Can you imagine the reaction if the Chief Constable said the PSNI would only attend road traffic collisions that resulted in a fatality? Or declined to investigate a burglary because the pensioner was only badly beaten, not killed? You don't even need to think about it, because it is so preposterous it could never happen. Yet, it is exactly what is proposed in the consultation document issued by the NIO.
There are other new bodies proposed in the consultation and I have reservations about all of them, but none would have anything like the powers of the HIU and none offers the prospect of justice for a single one of the 47,000 injured. They will become a forgotten tribe. That must not happen.
Some will say there is another proposal to help the injured, a special pension that takes account of their lost opportunities in education and employment, including the denial of their chance of working up their own pension pot.
But just as the latest thinking says it would be discriminatory to offer a pension only to the physically injured and exclude the psychologically damaged, so it is wrong to offer a route to justice through the HIU only to the families of the dead and not those injured through some of the most vicious criminal acts imaginable.
The NIO consultation runs until the 10th of September. I encourage everyone to offer a response. You do not need to reply to every single part of the document but I urge you to join me in this simple but fundamental statement of fairness: Do not forget the injured.