Troubles victims must not be left without a voice, warns outgoing commissioner

Updated

Victims and survivors of Northern Ireland’s troubled past must not be left without a voice, the outgoing commissioner has warned.

Judith Thompson’s term as Commissioner for Victims and Survivors will end on Monday after five years.

She has urged the Stormont Executive to appoint her successor quickly, to ensure that victims and survivors have a legally constituted voice.

Legacy issues have sparked rows within the Assembly, including disagreements over the definition of a victim, which has delayed a pension for those most seriously injured in the Troubles.

Institutions to deal with the past agreed by politicians in the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 remain to be implemented, and a victims and survivors strategy remains in development.

Fresh legacy legislation is expected at Westminster, and Ms Thompson has warned that victims need a voice, or risk being left “very short changed”.

“There is a network of victims and survivors groups with incredible strength but they are a very wide, diverse range of voices, and you do need one place with no political affiliations to listen to all those voices and try and find a way through it,” she told the PA news agency.

“There is a real risk that the full range of people in Northern Ireland who want to see some kind of resolution to past events are going to be very short changed by what may come from Westminster.

Judith Thompson
Judith Thompson

“The coming months are going to be a crucial test of how we deliver on the needs of all those who have suffered as a result of the Troubles.

“The fact that time after time the place that politicians have chosen to make a political stand, is when it comes to difficult decisions about delivering for victims and survivors. That is shameful.

“The legacy legislation that is now anticipated at Westminster is likely to be significantly different to that which was exhaustively consulted on.

“The result of the secretary of state’s announcement in March would leave all bereaved families facing the prospect of a desktop review following which their case would be closed permanently, regardless of any further evidence that could arise.

“This is not what most victims and survivors would want.”

Asked about her view on the lack of agreement over the definition of a victim, and whether former paramilitaries should qualify, Ms Thompson said she recognises there are “equally, genuine and legitimate feelings and beliefs behind all arguments”.

Jennifer McNern
Jennifer McNern

“In a place that can be divided you have got to find a point that is uncomfortable but the best way through it that you can, and that’s the job of this role,” she added.

Ms Thompson said legacy has been repeatedly “pushed down the road”.

“In hindsight it would have been great if there was more built into the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement around victims, if there had been more presence of victims’ voices at that table, and if they had been able to resolve that then, or at least move it forward,” she said.

“But the problem is that it was pushed down the road and it was always going to have to be resolved some time, and the further you push it down the road, the harder it seems to get and we really are at a point where we need to address the issues.”

Ahead of her departure, Ms Thompson said it had been a “massive privilege” and the “highlight of her career” to have served as commissioner.

The outgoing commissioner described seeing the legal victory of Jennifer McNern forcing action by Stormont over implementing the victims’ pension as one of the highlights of her term, describing the campaigner as “inspirational”.

“It’s so great to have been part of that, to have delivered the advice to government which supported that,” she said.

“To know that you have been a part of that happening, those things are great.”

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