Belfast Telegraph

Survivors’ stories provide us with a beacon of hope

Victim support is central to any planning for the future, says John Hunter

The most painful legacy of the Troubles can be found in the lives of victims and survivors - lives often stunted by the trauma and loss they suffered.

Their continuing suffering is largely ignored by wider society and disappointingly merits scarce mention in the recently published OFMDFM draft programme on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.

Over the years, more than 120 largely self-help groups have sought to provide guidance and support to victims and survivors through relatively modest grant programmes operated by the Community Relations Council (CRC) on behalf of OFMDFM. Total expenditure in 2009/10 was less than £5m.

These programmes have provided vital help and support to groups and individuals in a variety of innovative ways, ranging from counselling and therapy, education, training and employment advice, to truth, justice and acknowledgement issues.

A recent, independent report commissioned by the CRC, and published last week, concludes that these programmes have made a real difference to the lives of beneficiaries, enabling many victims and survivors to re-enter society and live more normal lives.

Their impact can be seen practically in improved mental health and well-being, reduced isolation, increased social interaction and a wider participation in society.

The trauma and loss they suffered can never be erased, but with appropriate interventions and support, there can be a measure of healing.

The report also pays tribute to the groups themselves. Over the years their capacity to provide services and support has grown, as their understanding of the needs of victims and survivors has increased.

The importance of the report lies not so much in its evaluation of the past, as in the pointers it provides for the future direction and delivery of victims and survivors' services. OFMDFM has plans for the establishment of a new Victims and Survivors' Service from 2012. The report provides a platform for the development of that service, to be supplemented by work being undertaken by the Commission for Victims and Survivors.

At the launch of the report last week a number of the groups presented their activities and shared their experiences. This approach to mutual learning has always been a feature of their work.

It was humbling to hear the intensely personal journeys of individuals. Their stories provide a beacon of hope for the healing of the wounds of the Troubles.

It was disappointing that no OFMDFM ministers were available to be present for the launch of the report to hear at first hand the presentations. They bear a heavy responsibility for the fashioning of the new Victims and Survivors' Service and its delivery, and our political leaders would have learnt much from the presentations.

Finally, the review team responsible for the report drew attention to the increasing importance of trans-generational trauma work with young people whose parents, or other close relatives were the victims and survivors of the Troubles.

There is a real risk that later generations are fated to become victims; their lives must not be blighted by the legacy of the Troubles.

How we respond to the needs of all victims and survivors will be a key indicator of the health of our society.

In planning a future based on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, the voices of victims and survivors have a valuable contribution to make.

John Hunter, a former permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, is chair of the reviewpanel for victims’ funding


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