THOUSANDS of people wounded or traumatised in the Troubles have lost essential support services as a result of government cuts, The Detail can reveal.
The Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) confirmed it has written to more than 3,000 victims of violence warning that support is being reduced or deferred after budget cuts by Stormont.
Today two bomb victims, one blinded in a blast and another who lost both her legs, tell The Detail how they must now choose which vital services they can afford and which they cannot.
But the new restrictions on victims come as the entire infrastructure created to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is facing crisis, with the four key institutions now under unprecedented pressure.
Jennifer McNern lost her legs in the IRA’s infamous Abercorn bombing in 1972 when an explosion in a packed city centre restaurant in Belfast killed two people and injured more than 100 others.
She said: "For victims and survivors, especially those living with serious injuries, it is dealing with life as it is now.
“We don’t have time to sit around for years waiting to deal with the past. The past is our present.”
The victims’ service pledged that it is seeking additional funding and said it wished to reassure families that it planned to phase in additional services when resources are available.
However, experts on the ground confirmed the scale of the impact on victims, at a time when the wider sector is under strain.
In recent days it has emerged that investigations into murders from the Troubles by the police Historical Enquiries Team (HET) will end because of cuts. The Police Ombudsman’s office also said reduced budgets will hamper its probes into historic killings.
This comes after a spate of resignations left the Victims’ Commission with no chief commissioner, while the Victims and Survivors Service has no chief executive and no chairperson.
The crisis in the institutions dealing with the past is being widely blamed on the financial pressures that currently threaten to push Stormont’s budget into the red.
But victims interviewed by the Detail have instead blamed the crisis on successive political decisions that they trace back to the beginning of the peace process in the 1990s.
Today The Detail also reports:
:: A leading victims’ group, the Wave trauma centre, confirms more people than ever are coming forward seeking help as a result of the Troubles, with a 34% rise in the last year.
:: Children as young as seven are being supported by WAVE, as the impact of historic violence is said to have “passed to the next generation”.
:: Experts insist legal obligations will ultimately force government to address victims’ needs, but families fear there are new barriers to establishing the truth or securing justice.
The British and Irish governments have promised fresh political negotiations in Northern Ireland to support the peace process.
But following the collapse of talks chaired last year by US diplomat Richard Haass, there is uncertainty over whether the question of dealing with the past will be addressed in a meaningful way.PAINFUL CHOICES
Jennifer McNern and Margaret Yeaman have become friends through the victims’ group Wave.
Like others severely traumatised by the Troubles they have sought to continue with their lives, but they have received only sporadic help to cope with the horror that was visited upon them.
After being effectively ignored for decades, victims saw their plight pushed to the fore after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
But the ground-breaking Bloomfield report into coping with the past was largely ignored. A Memorial Fund provided some charitable assistance, but comprehensive schemes to deal with legacy issues that were drawn-up by the subsequent Eames-Bradley report and the ill-fated Haass talks were effectively dropped.
Each temporary rise of interest in victims’ issues brought back painful memories and raised hopes.
The Victims and Survivors Service was created in 2012 by Stormont’s Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
“There were great problems when the service opened up,” said Jennifer. "People who were physically injured went through a very high level assessment process, a very intrusive process.
“But I have to say, at the end of it all our needs were being met to a degree.”
Six months after her care was put in place, she said she received a letter to say it was being cut.
Jennifer said her sister Rosaleen, who lost her legs and an arm in the Abercorn attack, cannot get the new electric wheelchair she needs.
“There is no money for her chair. The chair could go up into cupboards and, as I say, she has only got one hand.
“For myself, I was having massage which helps with pain relief. I was assessed for hearing aids, my hearing is bad in both ears. But that is all gone. That is not to say that everything is gone. Everyone at the end of August got £1,500 to spend until the end of March. You have to make a choice.”
Margaret, blinded in an IRA bomb in 1982 in Banbridge Co Down, said she was robbed of the chance of watching her four children grow up. She never got to see her grandchildren and has to ask relatives to describe how they look.
Her body is still riddled with shards of glass which, even decades later, continue to work their way to the surface of her skin.
Nightmares make it difficult to sleep and she has injured herself ‘running out of bed’ as she subconsciously relives the moment of the blast.
“We had to go down to the VSS to be assessed,” she said.
“When I got word of the needs that I was going to get, I was thrilled. I was very thankful for anything that I was going to get.”
She got help with housework, audio recordings of the latest magazines, and massage sessions to ease her pain.
“With the massages I got a really good sleep. No nightmares.”
The massages also helped remove the glass.
“With the massage and oils, the glass was coming out. Without that, I don’t know where the glass is in my body. I get a lot of splinters coming out. When they are around your clothes they can be very painful.”
Now she will have to choose which services she can afford.
“I just feel as though we are going begging all the time.”
She said she feels wider society has lost focus on the needs of victims.
“They don’t have a clue. Walk in my shoes. They would see what it is like.”
Oliver Wilkinson, Interim Chair of the Board of the Victims and Survivors Service, said: "The financial pressures currently facing the Northern Ireland Executive have had an impact on our budget at VSS, the detail of which was communicated to us by the Department for OFMDFM at the end of July.
“As a result of budget reductions, the VSS has had to implement certain changes to the criteria for accessing the Individual Needs Programme Schemes, and has deferred some schemes altogether.”
He said: “Over the past 8 weeks VSS has communicated directly with all of its clients to inform them of the support that is available. In doing so, we have been mindful that the news of reduced support is very difficult for some to hear, and has caused distress for some individuals.”
It is understood the VSS issued letters to more than 3,000 people to advise that support was being reduced.
Mr Wilkinson said the VSS and OFMDFM have applied for further funding in Stormont’s next review of its finances, the October monitoring round. Additional funding could allow “more extensive” services.
(See full statement from VSS below this article.)
The chief executive of Wave, Sandra Peake, said the decades of failed attempts to comprehensively address the needs of victims has caused great difficulties.
“There has been great uncertainty for victims and survivors, many of whom are extremely vulnerable,” she said.
“All of that impacts to increase that vulnerability. Victims and survivors wonder what the future holds for them. And they question why this cannot be dealt with in a comprehensive way?”
She said referrals to her group by individuals seeking counselling and other services is on the rise, with a 34% increase in the last year. New people are coming forward in areas across Northern Ireland. But cuts make it difficult to maintain continuity or to plan support for individuals.
“We’re getting people still coming forward from events in 1969, 1970, 1971. People from four decades ago who are presenting today with needs. That suggests that we have in our society a massive need to address. It is important that the resources are there.”
This rising trend works against the theory that the troubled past will fade away. Especially since data shows that young people are also being affected by the past.THE PROBLEM WILL NOT GO AWAY
Damien McNally was an infant when his father Paul was shot dead in a random sectarian gun attack by loyalists outside a bookmakers in north Belfast’s Ardoyne area in 1976.
His family struggled under the burden of the loss. Life was particularly difficult for Damien’s mother, as she cared for a young family.
As her husband lay dying in hospital, relatives said he was “panicking”, gripped by concern for the loved ones he feared leaving behind.
It was 26 years later, when Damien realised he had outlived his father, that his personal trauma became heightened.
He has now researched the experience of how violence can send shockwaves through the generations.
A lack of evidence prevented anyone being convicted for the loyalist murder of his father.
His family know some of what went on, but not all. The decision of police to collapse the HET under budget pressures means the family wonder if they and many others will get the answers they seek.
Damien said: “When you add that into what is happening with budgets, with nothing happening with Eames/Bradley, nothing happening with the Haass proposals….we are just left wondering where we go from here?”
Drawing on his research, he said: "For the injured, the bereaved, for others like the families of the Disappeared, this kind of suffering is still going on.
“And nobody wants to talk about it. Northern Ireland has coped for 40 years by saying, ’don’t talk about it’. But this isn’t going away.”