Julian Smith used to have the unenviable task of being Theresa May's chief whip. As the newly-appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he now has an even harder job. Wrangling unbiddable MPs pales into insignificance when arbitrating the causes and consequences of a brutalised polity.
Members of Northern Ireland’s devolved government still refuse to sit with each other and the legislative assembly is defunct. The police service is chased off Northern Irish housing estates by teenagers and regularly targeted for murder by dissident republicans. Putrid commemoration of dead terrorists saluted by gunfire and sinister paramilitary parades barely raises an eyebrow. Warnings about Brexit leading to a breakdown in peace in Northern Ireland are building to a crescendo of shroud-waving opportunism.
For Smith, there is no functioning administration to outsource these many difficulties to. However, his greatest concern should be elsewhere: in the collapse of confidence in the state-appointed Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, Judith Thompson. The unresolved plight of innocent victims of terrorism is the ghost at Smith’s banquet of priorities. The present is haunted by loss; unless Smith acts, the future will continue to be blighted by it.
People in Northern Ireland are well versed in the language of suffering. If there was a poet laureate for the victims and survivors of the Troubles their pages would ring with prosaic grief.
“‘My skull fractured like an eggshell. The eye sockets in my skull disintegrated into my head, the roof of my mouth was blown out. My right-hand jaw was missing from my chin to my ear. I had nine ribs broken and two hips smashed. My pelvis was broken and my leg badly smashed. I wasn’t really a candidate for living. I have had three operations this year. I had my 41st operation about three weeks ago.’
This was Jim Dixon, just last year describing the continuing ‘living hell’ visited on his body by the IRA terrorists who carried out the 1987 Enniskillen poppy day atrocity. The physical toll of the Troubles is an estimated 47,000 wounded bodies. It is estimated that the psychological casualties, uncountable and neglected could more than double this number.
In December 2018, Tracy Jamison described how horror smashed its way into a normal school day afternoon in 1990 as police arrived to break the news of the murder of her father Thomas, a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment:
“‘I was just 13 years old that day. We were in the living room of our house. I remember watching Grange Hill, and John Craven's Newsround was coming on when the doorbell went. Mummy was baking in the kitchen. I didn't even make it out of the living room because it all happened so quickly. My mum was told at the door. There was this squeal, then she dropped to the floor. I was just standing there.’
These sad tales weave themselves into a largely fading and forgotten tapestry of lost life and potential. Worse still, victims of Northern Ireland’s terrorist onslaught now find themselves co-opted – by daft and immensely hurtful draft legislation on pensions for victims of the conflict – into the same category as terrorists injured while trying to murder them.
No, you haven’t woken up in a parallel universe. The Victims and Survivors (NI) Order 2006, which is due to be fast-tracked in Parliament within a Northern Ireland Bill, makes provision for a pension for all those badly injured during the Troubles. This appears to allow for no distinction between victims maimed and perpetrators seriously injured on killing and bombing missions.
What's more, Victim’s Commissioner Judith Thompson seemed to go out her way not to have anything to say on the criteria of who constitutes a victim for the purposes of this exercise. In her 45 pages of advice to Smith’s hopeless, hapless predecessor Karen Bradley, there is plenty to say on eligibility by reason of severity of injury. But on the moral equivalence, or otherwise, of injured victims and perpetrators – not one word.
Defenders of Thompson say that she is constrained in her advice to ministers by existing legislation that contains these defects. That won’t wash. Her statutory duties include a commitment to ‘keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice affecting the interests of victims and survivors.’ That means to say openly that in her view the law is wrong and must be changed to protect the rights and primacy of innocent victims. The fact she can now address HMG as opposed to the circular firing squad that was Stormont’s power sharing Executive ought to have made that task even simpler. She has resolutely refused to do this and has stated, in effect, that her job is to sit on the fence regardless of the value of what lies on either side. In my view, that’s not a great advertisement for the second term of office she’s hoping for.
Imagine for a moment that on the mainland a law came into being that considered the loss suffered by an Islamist or far-right terrorist perpetrator as equivalent to that of their victims. And because there were contested narratives about why the terrorist killed, you decided to play safe and avoid distinguishing between murdered and murderers. You couldn’t. It would be moral insanity.
Yet it is a tribute to the success of the revisionist movement in Northern Ireland, directed mainly by Sinn Fein, that such repellent ideas are even held in contemplation.
In their eyes, all victims are equal. Context, you see, is everything. By this grotesque calculation, one of the bombers injured while murdering nine civilians with his own device in a Belfast fish shop in 1990 was ultimately hurt, not by his own callous actions, but by a state that rejected his political aspirations. Therefore in the hierarchy of victimhood, he sits alongside 13-year-old Leanne Murray who he blew to pieces that day in the name of a free Ireland.
It’s the logic of the asylum but we lost the keys to that place long ago. Northern Ireland is a place apart, we are frequently told. The rules and conventions of basic morality must be different there. Special pleading and cultural relativism has supplanted the sort of justice only available on the Mainland for the grown ups, we are told. The place that gave the world Van Morrison and the van bomb also invented constructive ambiguity – that say nothing, look the other way, swallow your hurt sleight of hand that allowed the semi-skimmed peace of the Good Friday Agreement to replace full-fat barbarism. It’s in the interests of extremists that Northern Irish society never emerges from this ethical hall of mirrors into normality.
But as the Troubles' walking wounded limp towards old age and succumb to wounds visible and unseen, there is an imperative to help them now before it’s too late. Pensions will provide some form of compensation, recognition and dignity for the tens of thousands of citizens, in uniform, in shops, town centres, chapels and churches, schools and workplaces who have endured so much and received so little.
The victims and survivors' definition problem has been thrown around between Westminster and Stormont like an unwanted parcel of spoiled meat since 2006. Given that the Northern Ireland institutions are again suspended, the new Secretary of State should step in. He must declare that there is no moral equivalence between terrorist perpetrators and victims. But he should also go further and legislate immediately to that effect, providing a statutory definition for victims and survivors that specifically excludes Loyalist and Republican terrorists from all injury-related pensions.
This issue has been stuck in the 'too difficult' box for years. It’s an inexcusable dereliction of duty that will see people like Jim Dixon go to their graves unrecognised for their suffering. It’s time for the Government to stop indulging the cheerleaders of violent extremism. No hopeful future can be built on the plague dirt of any settlement where killers and killed exist on equal terms.