Belfast Telegraph

We can't let our Troubles victims suffer any longer

We should welcome an EU directive to overturn the convention that makes no distinction between perpetrators and victims, says Mike Nesbitt

This is a critical time for victims and survivors of the Troubles. The support landscape is changing and there is more uncertainty than clarity about potential outcomes.

On the positive side, there is a 10-year strategy, mapping out the broad direction of travel; there is also four years' funding for the sector. But there is a degree of conditionality about how positive this is, especially with the factors that are critical to delivering for victims and survivors all in a state of flux.

Victims and survivors have needs. These include physical pain relief, mental health issues and lost opportunities in education and employment.

There are many providers helping meet those needs, but it is piecemeal, largely driven by voluntary sector organisations, who have operated in isolation of each other

The solution was a circle with four compass points: the devolved government, as funder; the new Victims and Survivors Service (VSS), as the body to co-ordinate how the funding was to be spent; the Commission for Victims and Survivors (CVSNI), which advises on victims' needs; and a Forum, which gives victims and survivors a voice heard at the heart of government.

The problem is that the sector is subject to systemic delays. I was one of the original commissioners at CVSNI. I waited 10 months between my job interview and my appointment.

According to the strategy published by OFMDFM, the Forum was due to set up shop in September 2009; we are still not quite there yet. And the VSS, which was due in June 2010, had its official opening last week, needing a good year to bed in.

The lessons are clear. There is no organisation on earth that thrives with four co-equal chairs, or chief executives. Yet, that was the model chosen to drive forward CVSNI.

There was an understandable focus on the persons who were to be the commissioners, but having tried to work the system, I am convinced that the problem was not the people, it was the model.

As the remaining commissioners come to the end of their four-year contract period, OFMDFM must ensure the new regime is set up in a manner that allows someone to make timely decisions.

The establishment of the Forum is imminent. I was there for the pilot phase, when members were hand-picked, on the basis that a full public appointment process would stall the establishment of what was to be a body that was scheduled to last less than a year.

I understood the Forum would be open to all victims and survivors who wished to serve and am disappointed the commissioners are again selecting the membership.

They do not need to be told that the majority of victims and survivors do not feel represented by high-profile characters in a victims and survivors sector.

The new Victims and Survivors Service is not even a week old, so we must give it time to prove itself, but these first few days will be critical in creating a positive first impression.

One of its tasks will be to take over the role of the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund which has served individual victims and survivors who do not belong to any groups.

Unlike the fund, the VSS will operate the definition of victim defined in the Victims and Survivors (NI) Order 2006. That definition is both contested and controversial, so it is interesting to note the EU is currently considering a directive on victims' rights that includes a new definition: "(i) a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering or economic loss, directly caused by a criminal offence, (ii) family members of a victim whose death was directly caused by a criminal offence and who have suffered harm as a result."

This is a draft definition the UUP will take to the Assembly today in a debate on victims and survivors of the Troubles.

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