Why the delay in giving pensions to the forgotten survivors of the Troubles brings shame on us all
The politicians are letting down some of those worst affected by the violence, says Alban Maginness
Of all those who suffered in the Troubles, it is undoubtedly the victims of violence who have fared worst. And to make matters even worse, there is, at the bottom of the pile, a small group of victims who have been so severely injured that they have been forced to campaign over the past six years to receive a pension to ameliorate their plight in their declining years.
Their campaign has received generalised political support across the parties, but, as usual, it has hit a stumbling block, because of differences between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the definition of a victim.
Again, this is the same old incapacity by the two sectarian juggernauts to reach a pragmatic agreement that has stalled this piece of legislation for those who have suffered most in our society.
The Wave Trauma Centre has calculated that around 500 severely injured victims of the Troubles face living out their latter years on very modest incomes, thus they are pushing for a special pension for those permanently injured and made disabled by political and sectarian violence, through no fault of their own.
While many received criminal injuries compensation many years ago, this compensation has since been seen to be wholly inadequate.
Sandra Peake, CEO of Wave, has pointed out that not only were the levels of compensation inadequate, but also that: "Frankly, these people were not expected to live beyond a few years."
In other words, the compensation awarded then was calculated on a relatively limited life expectancy, based on their very severe injuries.
As time went on, medical science improved treatment for those who were severely injured. This meant that victims benefited from those welcome improvements. However, their compensation dwindled over the years, until it eventually dried up.
While their lifespans have been extended with the passage of time, their physical problems of chronic pain and deteriorating health have been compounded.
Many were unable to work and were, therefore, denied the chance of building up a workplace pension, thereby leading to greater dependence on State benefits. They have entered old age without the financial security that they might otherwise have enjoyed if they had been capable of working.
Alan McBride, who has co-ordinated the injured group at Wave, has described how they have hit a brick wall with regard to the DUP and Sinn Fein, who are unable to agree about who is eligible for such a pension.
He argues that, if the local parties still fail to agree on this issue, then Westminster should step in, because the plight of the severely injured is as much a legacy of Northern Ireland's past as anything else and it must be addressed, because it would be shameful if these victims were to be left behind.
Judith Thompson, the Victims' Commissioner, supports this call. She has said that: "The fact that we have not been able to achieve the pension is a profound indictment of how we treat these individuals."
Under the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014, there was general agreement on legacy issues and, in particular, agreement on the setting up of the Historical Investigations Unit, the Oral History Archive and agreement on funding legacy inquests by the British Government.
Significantly, also included was an agreement on a pension scheme for the severely injured in the Troubles. But the interesting aspect of all this was that these matters would be legislated for at Westminster. The British Government pledged to put all these proposals out for consultation.
Despite promises by the previous Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, no consultation has yet taken place. The new Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, is now committed to consult, but has yet to do so.
As pensions for the severely disabled are, in fact, an official legacy issue, there is every reason why this should be included in any such consultation and should be properly considered as a matter that should be legislated for at Westminster.
Given the unlikely restoration of the Executive for a very long time, it is absolutely right and proper that the British Government legislates for this small group of victims, who have suffered - and continue to suffer - grievously as a result of our collective political failure in the past and today. At the very least, we, as a society, would be helping those least able to help themselves. Time is of the essence to get things moving to help surviving victims.
Severely injured people like Jennifer McNern, now in her sixties, who was 21 in 1972 when she lost her legs in a no-warning bomb in the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast city centre. She had been out shopping with her sister, Rosaleen, who was also horrifically injured.
Another seriously injured victim was Paul Gallagher, paralysed at the age of 21 in 1994. He was shot by loyalist gunmen who lay in wait for one of Paul's neighbours. The neighbour did not turn up, so they shot Paul instead, with frightening, life-changing consequences.
He, rightly, claims that the political world has forgotten about victims, even though they are specifically mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement.
There is a profound sense of hurt and injustice among these victims, about the way their needs have been neglected for so long.
We, as a society, owe it to these severely injured victims, and the time has come to end the outrageous delay in establishing a special pension for those, like Jennifer McNern and Paul Gallagher, who are still enduring the wounds of the Troubles.