“There are moments when people listen to the victims”

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By Barry McCaffrey

NORTHERN Ireland has so far tried and failed to deal with the past and those who were made victims of the Troubles through no fault of their own.

But nearly two decades after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994 why has the victims’ issue still not been resolved and why do many of those who were injured or lost loved-ones in the conflict now feel that their voices are no longer being listened to?

In January 2009 the Consultative Group on the Past, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, published a set of 30 proposals aimed at helping Northern Ireland to deal with the past.

While the majority of the report’s recommendations were widely supported, one proposal, which recommended a one-off £12,000 payment to families who had been bereaved through the Troubles, met with major opposition from some unionist politicians and victims.

The proposals were later shelved by then Secretary of State Shaun Woodward.

Over the last decade there have been at least three attempts to find a solution as to how Northern Ireland should deal with its past.

In 2005 there was the Westminster-inspired ‘Shared Future’ document, while in 2010 the Stormont Assembly published its own ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ (CSI) strategy.

Projects such as plans for a conflict transformation centre at the former Maze Prison site and the appointment of former prisoners as special advisers at Stormont continue to cause controversy among the victims’ sector.

In May 2013 First and deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness replaced the ‘Shared Future’ document with yet another strategy entitled: ‘Together: Building a United Community’.

The new strategy includes the establishment of an all party working group, chaired by former US envoy Richard Haas, to draw up proposals aimed at resolving the flags, parades and past issues.

But with victims’ groups claiming that their voices are being ignored by government, are the mistakes of the past about to be revisited?

Over the last 25 years psychologist Dr David Becker has worked extensively with people who have suffered psychological trauma as a result of conflicts in Chile, Palestine, Bosnia and Colombia.

He says that many victims of violence in war torn conflicts find that their concerns are often ignored following a prolonged period of peace time:

“I think in every country in the world there are moments when people listen to the victims, they become sort of important like when there are truth commissions or when at the end of the conflict they are finally taken into account and then there seems to be a movement when they are pushed away again, marginalised where somehow you fall back into silence.”

Dr Becker believes he has noticed a marked change in how bereaved families are treated during successive visits to Northern Ireland over the last decade.

“When I came here several years ago for the first time I sort of felt there is so much happening here, there are so many groups working and there is a willingness to really do something for your victims.

“I confess that now coming back, reality looks more contradictory.

“It seems that you are still in a situation where lots of victims have not spoken out, have not been listened to, where in spite of the different programmes that exists here and have offered help, somehow the national process of listening to what victims have to say is far from over and far from finished.”

The psychologist says that while he is not opposed to the assessment of victims, he believes the process itself could in individual circumstances potentially cause further damage to the people it is designed to help.

“I’m not per se against such assessments, but I think there are high risks involved. There is the risk that even if you don’t want to do anything that is harming, it is perceived as threatening, perceived as confusing.

“It implies the risk of new labelling, it implies the risk of a new experience of disempowerment; other people judging you, victims have always experienced, as a key experience, several total experiences of disempowerment.”

Like every other government body the Victims & Survivors Service (VSS) is compelled to prove that it has achieved value for money in relation to the services it provides to the bereaved and injured.

But is it fair to equate the financial cost of treating the psychological needs of victims in the same way as another government department would pay for the repair of filling pot holes on a road?

“Yes and no is the answer,” says Victims & Survivors Service director Ann Dorbie.

“I think in terms of delivering services to victims, they must be of the highest standard and that is something that the service would aspire to, particularly in the areas of health and wellbeing. There is no way you want anybody to go to a therapist who isn’t properly qualified.”

However the VSS director says that the agency must be governed by cost efficiencies just like any other government agency.

“Again value for money has got to come in to it.

“We have a limited budget and we’re trying to maximize those resources.

“Getting the full picture of victims needs is allowing us to do that.”

WAVE director Alan McBride believes that the future needs of victims would be better served if victims’ groups and the VSS were able to work more collaboratively.

“The people down at the service are very nice people; I have no doubt about that. I’m sure their heart is in the right place,” he says.

“But let’s go forward together and make sure the service that we’re providing is fit for purpose for victims and survivors.”

When questioned as to whether groups such as WAVE and RFJ will be able to survive without the support of the VSS, he says:

“I suppose the future is that the (VSS) service will continue to be in business and they’ll continue to do their work.

“I just think it would be sad that all those years of experience that have been built up in the (community) sector would be lost to the service.

“I think that would be sad and I think ultimately the loser would be the victim and survivor.

“We’re not starting from scratch today, we’re coming on the back of 20 years of service delivery and I think it’s important that we learn from that and are able to take that on board and to use that in a way to improve the lives of victims and survivors.

“That has to be the message going forward.”

© The Detail 2013