Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: Controversy has cast doubts over integrity of the forum

By Mike Nesbitt

When you are managing a body as sensitive as the Victims and Survivors Forum, there is a simple, fundamental principle that should govern your efforts: "Do no harm".

You may harbour great ambitions to use the forum to transform lives for the better, but before you try anything, you must take every step possible to ensure you are not going to do any harm to the members.

Victims and survivors are not a homogeneous group of people, but they do share some common needs, not least the imperative to live in safe places, free from unpleasant surprises.

Clearly, the recent controversy concerning the forum has done great harm on two levels. Firstly, it has harmed Jackie Nicholl, whose 17-month-old son was killed by an IRA bomb.

As we now know, Mr Nicholl was unaware until recently that he was befriending a fellow forum member who was an IRA bomber; the shock of the discovery has driven him to resign from the body.

The incident has clearly re-traumatised him and the Commission for Victims and Survivors is very aware of the dangers of re-victimisation - just look at their website.

Secondly, it has harmed the integrity of the forum itself.

We now have the perverse situation where an unapologetic member of what was once widely assessed as western Europe's most feared terrorist organisation sits on the Victims Forum while a man whose son was murdered by them does not.

Sadly, this is not the first time this type of issue has arisen.

In my time, a widow was deeply upset to discover via the media that a certain individual had been appointed to the forum.

She should have been told in advance, given the chance to prepare herself; the same goes for Jackie Nicholl - no surprises.

It is a matter of regret that the Commission for Victims and Survivors does not have the corporate memory to learn from its own past.

The Victims and Survivors Forum is a remarkable body.

From its outset, we brought people into the same room who had never shared space before.

Some of the most powerful, passionate speeches I have ever heard have been delivered by its members - as have some inspiring acts of empathy and generosity.

The forum is also one of the cardinal points on the clock face delivering for victims and survivors, alongside the commission, the Victims and Survivors Service and The Executive Office. The four make possible a responsive, evidence-based reaction to the horrific legacy of suffering created during 30 years of conflict.

I overheard a conversation once between a former senior police officer and a convicted IRA man.

The former said he never got out of bed thinking "Who can I harm today?" The latter replied "Ah, but I did."

That distinction must not be lost.

However it already has been in the official definition of a victim in the 2006 Order.

I believe that just because you have a past does not mean you cannot have a future, but it must be a future committed to doing no harm.

This includes transparency and openness in the forum.

Mike Nesbitt is an Ulster Unionist MLA and a former Victims Commissioner

Belfast Telegraph

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