[This is the text of an article published in the Belfast Telegraph 5.08.09]
It isn’t hard to predict what the first item on the agenda of the new Victims Forum will be.
As representatives of the different victims groups come together, and look across the table at people from groups they don’t like, they will seek a definition of a victim which excludes those unlike themselves.
Well, some will be broad ranging in their understanding and some won’t.
For many of the victims representative groups who will be invited to send delegates to the forum, the rights and wrongs of the past conflict are clear, and some of those who want to be included among the victims are actually, in their eyes, perpetrators.
It is this inevitable ranking of victims into hierarchies, depending on relative innocence and guilt, that the Eames Bradley Consultative Group on the Past tried to forestall with its recommendation that families of all those who died, blamelessly or not, should receive a recognition payment of £12,000.
The point was to make a practical statement to the effect that all those who died were victims of a conflict which was part of the legacy of history and not of their making.
It would place all victims on a level footing at the start of a reconciliation process.
The announcement of that proposal caused ructions when it was made in January with the publication of the Eames Bradley report.
It now seems highly unlikely that the coming Victims Forum will endorse that proposal.
Many expressed themselves ‘sickened’ by it. They did not see it as the solution to the problem of their likely divisions, something that would start them out on an equal basis, but as an insult to those who were genuinely innocent, in that they would be categorized along with those who had killed them.
Now the Forum will meet knowing something that was not in the report, that the Commission for Victims and Survivors, which establishes the Forum, actually encouraged Eames and Bradley to retain the recognition payment proposal.
That information was leaked last week at the John Hewitt Summer School, at a panel discussion which I chaired.
Denis Bradley said plainly that the Commission had asked for the recognition payment on the understanding that this would ease divisions within the Victims Forum when it sat.
It was an uncomfortable moment for Mike Nesbitt, one of the Commissioners. He had criticised the report when it was published, arguing that the recognition payment idea was divisive and would even split families.
He had said that the idea was a bad one because it took no account of those who lived with injuries, only of those who had died.
In Armagh last week he said that he didn’t quite remember that the commission of which he is a member had endorsed the idea. He said he hadn’t been at all the meetings. He said that three of the commissioners had voted for the recognition payment but that he had decided that he could not accept it, and he admitted that he had been late in coming to that conviction.
It wasn’t a great example of unity and certainty within the four person Commission. The commission was set up after considerable procrastination by the Executive. Originally advertised as a single post, critics of the compromise arrangement, by which four people would be perceived as representing the diverse traditions in Northern Ireland, feared that agreement would be difficult. Well, so it seems to have proven.
This week the Commission for Victims and Survivors issued a statement confirming that it had encouraged the Eames Bradley Consultative Group to include the recognition payment among their recommendations.
The Commission denies that this had anything to do with the formation of the Victims Forum. It also wants to make clear that the payment was not its own idea.
There can be little doubt from the wording of their letter to the Consultative group, in November last year, that the Commission liked the idea. Its only quibble with it was with a suggestion of an an age qualification, to favour the families of those who died in the 1970s. The Commission expressed no reservation against payments being made to families of paramilitaries killed in the pursuit of the campaigns.
“CVS welcomes the suggestion that CGDP would recommend an acknowledgement payment be made to families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of the conflict.”
It is perhaps not surprising that when the idea was so widely reviled and they were even divided among themselves, the Commissioners for Victims and Survivors have not leapt to defend it once it was published.
Their own masters in the Executive are against it and the secretary of State has effectively scrapped it, though formal discussions on Eames Bradley continue.
But if the Commissioners thought it was a good idea last November, then perhaps they should say plainly now that it is a good idea still, or tell us what has changed.