There have been two major developments concerning victims/survivors since 2005: firstly the appointment of the four Victims’ Commissioners to the Commission for Victims and Survivors, and secondly the establishment of the ‘Consultative Group on the Past’, the so–called Eames/Bradley Group. Both initiatives have garnered both high–profile public attention and divided opinions. Alongside these, in 2005 after a process of consultation with the victims/survivors sector, the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee released a report, entitled Ways of Dealing with Northern Ireland’s Past: Interim Report – Victims and Survivors.
The first Victims’ Commissioner was S ir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former public servant who was appointed for a fixed term to the position by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Marjorie Mowlam, in December 1997 . As the Victims’ Commissioner, it was Bloomfield’s task to produce a report outlining the development of the victims’ sector in Northern Ireland. His report entitled, We Will Remember Them, was published in April 1998.
The suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive on 14 October 2002 resulted in the reintroduction of Direct Rule. In 2002 the UK government decided against a Victims’ and Survivors’ Commissioner ‘given that no clear view emerged during the consultation as to whether a Commissioner should be appointed’.1 In 2003–04, the Minister with responsibility for victims conducted another consultation, in which ‘there was a divergence of views on the need for a Victims Commissioner’.2
On 1 March 2005 the then Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, launched the consultation document Services for Victims and Survivors. During the launch, Murphy took the opportunity to announce – in line with one of major recommendations of the consultation document – proposals to appoint a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, as well as instigating a period of consultation on the detailed remit of the post, and on the wider future of services for victims and survivors of the Troubles.3
On Monday 24 October 2005, Peter Hain, the new Secretary of State, appointed what was called an Interim Victims’ Commissioner. The Interim Victims’ Commissioner, Bertha McDougall, was asked to carry out the following duties:
McDougall took up her post as Interim Commissioner on 5 December 2005. The appointment of Bertha McDougall as the Interim Victims’ Commissioner was not welcomed in all quarters. McDougall, whose police reservist husband Lindsay was killed by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in Belfast in 1981, was seen by some Irish nationalist organisations as a partisan choice for the position. Her appointment by ex–Ulster Secretary Peter Hain was deemed improper and politically motivated by a High Court judge. Despite this, McDougall’s tenure included the publication of a report in January 2007, entitled: Interim Victims Commissioner’s Report on the Services for Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy.
The 160–page report made a number of recommendations on the themes of Services, Funding, and the establishment of a Victim’s Forum. Concentrating mostly on issues concerning service delivery, the report highlighted the need for progress in these key areas:
Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
In order to officially sanction the permanent post of a Victims’ Commissioner, new legislation was required. On 14 November 2006 the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was given Royal Assent. Accordingly, the Order makes provision for the establishment of the post of Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, and sets out the Commissioner’s role and remit. The Order has three sections containing 10 Articles altogether. Most notable among these Articles include:
The restoration of full powers to the Northern Ireland Executive on 8 May 2007 raised expectations that a permanent Victims’ Commissioner would be appointed. Article 4 of the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 had made provision for the Commissioner to be appointed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly. The post was also a regulated appointment falling within the remit of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland (OCPANI). Already, prior to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and following public advertisement in January 2007, 46 applications were received for the post. Of these, 14 applicants were invited for interview by a selection panel, consisting of two senior civil servants and an independent assessor appointed by OCPANI. Following the interviews the panel prepared a list of candidates who were considered suitable for appointment. This list was subsequently forwarded to the First Minister and deputy First Minister when the Northern Ireland Executive was restored for their consideration. The complete process was overseen and certificated by the independent assessor.
The then First Minister and deputy First Minister ( Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness) were unable to make a decision concerning an appointment. On 8 October 2007 they announced that they had decided to extend the appointment process and re–advertise the position with the intention of announcing the new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors before the end of the year. Following the advertisement in October 2007, forty–two people submitted applications for the post of Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. Fourteen people were interviewed and three considered suitable for appointment. These were added to the list of five people considered suitable for appointment remaining in the pool from the first stage of the process.
The decision regarding an appointment was finally made public on 28 January 2008. In the end, rather than – as had been advertised – one post being filled, four victims’ commissioners were appointed. The First and deputy First Minister announced the appointment of four Commissioners to the Northern Ireland Assembly, saying: ‘this announcement is really for those who have been largely without a voice. Today, we are giving them a voice — a real voice. It is a voice that will reach the heart of Government and will be heard and listened to for the very first time’.4 Alongside the appointment of four commissioners, the victims’ sector was allocated £36million over a period of three years. The commission members were to each receive a salary of £65,000 per annum and agree among themselves who will chair their meetings. The appointment of four commissioners was portrayed in some sections of the media as a political compromise rather than a merit–based procedure. There was speculation that the First Minister and deputy First Minister, representing respectively the largest Unionist and Nationalist political parties, were simply unable to appoint a single commissioner who would be seen as representative for both Nationalists and Unionists.
In March 2008, Michelle Williamson, whose parents were killed in an IRA bomb attack on the Shankill Road in 1993, received High Court permission to challenge the appointment of four victims’ commissioners. Williamson’s campaign claimed the support of 15 Protestant victims’ groups. In the High Court, Mr Justice Gillen ruled there was enough public importance in the case brought by Michelle Williamson to grant leave to apply for a judicial review. This case has heard that the First and deputy First Minister kept no written records of their decision to expand the victims’ job from one post to four. In July 2008, Dr. Marie Breen-Smyth, a lecturer at the University of Wales, filed legal action against the First Ministers’ Office with the Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals in Belfast. Breen-Smyth had been offered one of the four Commissioner positions. Her lawyers, Worthington Commercial, said: ‘she [Breen-Smyth] raised a series of concerns about this offer’. The lawyers stated that Breen-Smyth argued that having four posts was ‘organisationally inadvisable’ and an unwarranted use of public money.5
Due to the fact that four commissioners were appointed, rather than one, an amendment to The Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was required. Accordingly, the Commission for Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Act 2008 received Royal Assent on 23 May 2008. The Commissioners were then charged with consulting with victims and survivors, groups and organisations in the community, voluntary and statutory sector. Its initial work programme focused on the period from February 2008 until the end of March 2009. On 22 July 2008, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) announced an increase in funding for Victims and Survivors, including a doubling in the amount available to the Community Relations Council for the Development Grant Scheme which supports groups and other voluntary organisations working with victims and survivors. Individual victims were to receive £900,000 of funding to be delivered through the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund.
On 22 June 2007 Peter Hain, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced the formation of an independent Consultative Group. The Group was asked to:
The Consultative Group on the Past was co–chaired by Denis Bradley, who had been vice chairman of the Policing Board, and former Archbishop of Armagh, The Right Reverend Lord Eames. The following were members of the Group: Mr Jarlath Burns, Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll, Professor James Mackey, Mr Willie John McBride MBE, Ms Elaine Moore, and Canon David Porter.
Asked to describe their function at a press conference to launch the group, Eames stated: it was ‘hugely important for the future to deal properly with the past’.6 At the same meeting, Bradley said: ‘This consultative group provides a platform for people to express their own views on how to address the violent legacy of the Troubles which impacted on so many across all sections of society’.7
In early September 2007 the Group announced a process of engagement and consultation, inviting any individuals or groups to share their views on how Northern Ireland society could best approach the legacy of the past 40 years. The Group stressed that its role was to make recommendations about a process for dealing with the past and that the Group itself was not that process. On that basis views were invited on:
The Group began to organise meetings across Ireland, north and south, and in Great Britain. Over 500 people attended public meetings in Belfast, Omagh, Armagh, Ballymena, Bangor, Enniskillen and Derry/Londonderry. In advance of the public meetings advertisements and articles were featured in the respective local media outlets. Notices were placed in libraries and other key facilities in the surrounding areas. Letters were sent to relevant MPs, MLAs, MEPs and local councils, asking them to raise awareness of the meetings. This public consultative process quickly became mired in acrimony when, shortly before its first public meeting in Belfast on 7 January 2008, there was press speculation that the Group were to investigate the possibility of an amnesty for paramilitaries and that they were also set to ask the British government to formally say it fought a war against the IRA.8
As part of the extensive consultation process the Group sought advice from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Victim Support Northern Ireland in order to ensure that the consultation was as accessible as possible. To broaden public awareness of the consultation period the Group placed advertisements in the main Northern Ireland newspapers, as well as key newspapers in the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain. Press releases and an ‘Open Letter’ were distributed to media outlets, including some in the USA. Letters were also sent to a wide range of interested groups inviting them to participate. A website was created so that members of the public could gain information about the work of the Group, make submissions and express views publicly in a discussion forum.
By the end of the eighteen month consultation period, 290 written submissions and 2086 standardised letters had been received. The Group met privately with 141 individuals or representative groups. Reviewing the lengthy consultation process at its conclusion, the group stated:
At the announcement in June 2007 of the formation of the Consultative Group it was stated that the Group expected to present a report with recommendations by the summer of 2008. Due to the breadth of the mandate and the extent of the consultation, the Group was unable to publish the report until 28th January 2009. However, just days before the launch of the report in Belfast, a number of the reports’ main recommendations were leaked in the media. The main focus of attention was placed on the expectation that the Group were to recommend that the families of every person who died in the Troubles from 1966 onwards should receive compensation of £12,000. This particular proposal was quickly opposed by those who saw it as making equivalence between perpetrators of violence and innocent victims of violence. Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, sought to speak for opponents of the recommendation when he said: ‘Terrorists died carrying out their evil and wicked deeds while innocent men, women and children were wiped out by merciless gangsters’. 9 Another Unionist politician, Jim Nicholson, stated : ‘The proposal endorses the morally flawed notion that a terrorist killed while undertaking a mission of murder has the same status as an innocent civilian murdered in a bomb attack or a member of the security forces murdered in front of their family’.10
The report of the Consultative Group on the Past was released to invited victims’ groups, politicians, police officers and the media at the Europa Hotel in Belfast on Wednesday, 28th January 2009. At the launch of the report Lord Eames explained how the Europa was chosen because it was once dubbed the most bombed hotel in Europe but now sat ‘proudly as a landmark in the rejuvenated Belfast’.11 The start of the event was delayed by around 20 minutes as some bereaved relatives stood pointing fingers at one another and traded accusations over the deaths of their loved ones. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who was sitting in the hall, was among those targeted by the protestors.
The 190–page Report of the Consultative Group on the Past makes more than 30 recommendations. In the foreword of the report, Eames and Bradley state:
Another passage from the report states:
The report provides a summary of main recommendations:
The Legacy of the Past and Reconciliation
According to the consultative group’s own figures, the total cost of the recommendations, if implemented, would be £300m. The structures envisaged by the Consultative Group, if adopted by the British government, will require primary legislation. So, it could take up to two years for a legacy commission and a reconciliation forum to begin work. However, on 25 February 2009, Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in an announcement on a BBC radio programme, ruled out the proposal for a £12,000 payment to all families bereaved as a result of the Troubles.
Media and Political Response
It was this proposal – ‘The nearest relative of someone who died as a result of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, from January 1966, should receive a one–off ex–gratia recognition payment of £12,000’ – that the media and the political establishment largely concentrated on
The Consultative Group had taken the idea for the £12,000 payment from a similar ‘acknowledgement payment’ of €15,000 made in the Republic of Ireland by the Government’s Remembrance Commission. So far (February 2009), the Department of Justice has paid over 497 people in the Republic totalling €3,871,893, with some payments of €15,000 divided between members of families. The criterion for payment was that the deceased person was normally resident in the State at the time of fatal injury or was fatally injured in the South. The £12,000 payment recommended in the Consultative Group’s report, however, will cover only those bereaved from Britain and Northern Ireland and those who received the €15,000 will not be covered by the scheme.
Explaining the rationale behind the ‘recognition payment of £12,000’ at the launch of the report, Eames described the payment as a way of society saying to the families of those killed : ‘We are sorry for your troubles … This is not compensation by another name. It is the acknowledgment of their loss and of their pain’.12
Opinions on this particular recommendation widely differed. There was some support for the so–called ‘recognition’ payment. In one article, entitled Bearing Pain Equally, a writer argued:
One victim, Sylvia Hackett, whose husband was shot dead by a loyalist in 1987, stated:
There was also a high degree of opposition for the ‘recognition payment’, especially from Unionist political parties and a number of victims’ group. The main crux of opposition to the proposal was that the recognition payment would act to make a moral equivalence between those who had committed violence and those innocents who were the victims of such violence. An editorial in the pro–Unionist newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter, stated:
The First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said : ‘There can be no equivalence between those who went out with the clear intention of murdering and those. … who were slaughtered as they went about their daily business’.16
Notably, in dealing with ‘how victims are defined’, the report of the Consultative Group sought to eschew ‘the use of definitions which produce a hierarchy of victims that is broadly structured along sectarian lines. Continuing this already highly politicised debate is both fruitless and self–defeating and the Group has, for the purposes of its work, accepted the definition as set out in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006’ (p. 26). Article 3 of this Order outlines the pertinent definition.
Tenth Report. Ways of Dealing with Northern Ireland’s Past : Interim Report – Victims and Survivors
In May 2004 the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, announced that his office was to begin a process of consultation about how Northern Ireland could find ‘ways of dealing with the past which recognises the pain, grief and anger associated with it’ but which ‘enables it to build a better future for the next generation’.17
In this context, on 4 November 2004 the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee announced an inquiry into ‘ways of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past’. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry, entitled Reconciliation: ways of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past, sought to ‘conduct a comprehensive set of investigations over an extended period which would contribute to the process of intercommunity healing on which the future of Northern Ireland depends’. During the early months of 2005 the Committee hosted ten sessions of evidence in Northern Ireland and Westminster during which they heard from over sixty victims and survivors, representatives of victims’ groups, and other important witnesses whose evidence was relevant. On 9 March – their final session of evidence – they took evidence from Mr Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Angela Smith, Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office with responsibility for victims and survivors. The Committee also received a large amount of written material. The Committee further made three informal visits to meet victims:
The Committee also visited the exhibition, ‘The Irish at War’ at the Ulster Museum.
The Committee had to curtail its investigation due to the prospect of a UK general election in the spring of 2005. In lieu of completing the investigation, the Committee decided to publish the evidence in an interim report containing a number of preliminary observations. The report, which was published on 14 April 2005, began by stating:
Included in the Committee’s observations:
The report also made a number of conclusions which would contribute ‘ways forward’. Included in the Committee’s conclusions :
1 HC Deb, 27 May 2004, cols 91-92WS
2 Services For Victims and Survivors, Annex A, p 5. Northern Ireland Office officials were unable to quantify the proportion of support for a Commissioner amongst consultees, Q 859
3 See : http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/victims/docs/pm010305victims.htm
4 See : http://victimscommission.org/about_us
5 See : http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/woman-to-sue-first-ministers--over-victimsrsquo-commissioner-post-13925685.html
17 HC Deb, 27 May 2004, cols 91-92WS
Last modified: June 6, 2009 13:35