The Big Interview: VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to Judith Thompson, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors in Northern Ireland, about the work of her post

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Judith Thompson at her office in Belfast

Question: When do you expect the findings from The Northern Ireland Office consultation ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ to be released?

Answer: The consultation closed last October with 18,000 responses. We would expect to know what the findings are in the next few weeks.

Q: Are you hopeful the consultation will significantly help to address what you have previously described as “a lack of progress”?

A: The outcome of the consultation has to be legislation. Nothing is going to address our lack of progress other than new legislation.

Q: The Commissioner for Victims and Survivors (CVSNI) was first established on October 24, 2005. Since then numerous commissioners have held the position including yourself when you were appointed in August 2015. Has it been public money being well spent and what are the main achievements of the office, including your time in the post?

A: If you look in the round of the history of it, this is a piece of the Good Friday Agreement that 20 years later we have done very little, within many respects, with victims issues. In the Good Friday Agreement there was reference to victims, there was a statement that in order to achieve reconciliation you needed to address the suffering of victims. The only significant development that actually hit the ground and is working is funding through the Victims and Survivors Service for groups and individuals on the ground. We have the beginnings of work on a new regional trauma network to address what is a significant and lasting mental health legacy here. The things we have not done and I think they are incredibly significant ones, such as dealing with the backlog in our justice sector, which are costing us credibility here and payment around £30 million a year of public expenditure, according to the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, on institutions which can’t deliver what they are meant to deliver. It is costing us in terms of international judgements against us for failure to comply with human rights legislation.

Q: Should a victim of The Troubles ever be appointed as a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors?

A: I think holding this office or any other office is down to the competence of the individual to hold it. But neither on its own would it form a good enough basis to do the job. I wouldn’t in principle be opposed to a victim doing anything.

Q: What’s your definition of a victim?

A: I work absolutely within the law. The law says a victim is anybody who has been injured, anybody who has been bereaved, anyone who has been traumatised with significant attention to first responders (medics, fire and rescue), anyone who is a carer.

Q: Do you think people who were injured whilst engaged in violent activities can considered to be a ‘victim’?

A: Under our law they clearly are. Under our law in respect of any type of action you’ve always got people who will both be victims and responsible for causing harm to others because that’s how it is.

Q: In 2016, the Wave Trauma Centre urged politicians and church leaders to back a pension for those severely injured during the conflict. The group is believed to number about 500 people who were so badly injured they were unable to work and could not build up pensions. Will the pension scheme they have called for be set up and when?

A: I would be absolutely delighted to see the scheme set up. In 2015 this office delivered advice to the then First and Deputy First ministers which set out how we thought the pension could be established, who it would be for, what it would cost, how we thought it should work, how it should pass to people’s relatives in the event of their passing on. The political agreement around it has held up that happening. It’s a scandal that you’ve got people like Paul Gallagher (who was shot and left paralysed during the Troubles) people like Jennifer McNern and Peter Heathwood, who have all campaigned for this pension and who were injured in a life-changing way and who were given compensation that in no way ever was going to help them life long with those injuries.

Q: Who or what is the roadblock to this pension being set up?

A: In Northern Ireland there is political disagreement between our parties. It hinges around the fact that a small number of people who may have been responsible for the harm that befell themselves might also get that pension. At the moment we have no Assembly to deal with it even though the pension scheme is regarded as a devolved matter. The only place to take it now is Westminster. I believe now that is where it should go.

Q: Would you regard it as a failure if this pension scheme has still not been set up in five years time?

A: I would see it as a failure of our government, our society and our people.

Q: Would you include your office in this ‘failure’?

A: Of course. But this is an issue that depends on political support. It’s the job of the Commission to give our advice and to absolutely push the issue in every possible way. I believe the only way to do it is to bring this issue to Westminster. These are people who have been let down many times and I’m not in the business of making promises that I do not personally have in my gift to keep.

Q: Would a hard Brexit affect the work of the Victims and Survivors Commission?

A: There are significant issues. One is peace funding. We are being reassured that regardless of the EU exit that peace funding will continue to help victims and survivors but it’s not an indefinite promise. The other really significant issue is the EU directive on the rights of victims. It says that all victims, including historical ones, have a right to support, the right to protection if they need it, the right to know the progress of their case. We’re talking about 1,150 cases. There is no guarantee of this continuing with an EU exit.

Q: Why has the Regional Trauma Network not been established?

A: I guess that we have been slow to learn. I don’t know how we once thought that people had been remarkably resilient during the Troubles. Over the years research has emerged which shows the effects of trauma. The Regional Trauma Network is now in existence. It just needs more money. We need a big injection of funding, amounting to millions of pounds.

Q: Your current position ends in 2019 with a provision to extend it for another four years. Would you like to remain in the post?

A: Yes. Absolutely

Q: What have been the highs and lows of your job?

A One has been getting the new Victims and Survivors forum together. I also think we are a step nearer to getting the pension scheme delivered. We have also delivered research and policy advice. The most disappointing moment was that when I was appointed on September 1, 2015, there was an expectation that consultation on new legislation would start in November of that year. We had the Fresh Start Agreement at the same time where the politicians agreed on everything except legacy. And they published an agreement on everything except legacy. I remember talking then to a victims and survivors forum when it was the one thing where they all said that nobody is prioritising us over anything. They all said that this is completely unacceptable. That was a real low point. We need to have a conversation not about blame but understanding and moving forward. We can’t draw a line under the past until we have addressed the outstanding issues.

• To view an online version of our latest edition on Victims, Survivors and Legacy issues, go tohttps://issuu.com/brianpelanone/docs/view_issue_51

• To download a version of our latest edition on Victims, Survivors and Legacy issues, go to https://cl.ly/592c8b542ae8

• To receive future issues of VIEW and information about our digital training courses, go to http://viewdigital.org/sign-get-view/

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