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Injured in The Troubles: 'I don't know whether they're just waiting for us to die off'

Some of those left severely injured in the Troubles are now in their 70s and 80s. They says it’s imperative a special pension be introduced.

BOMBING IN COLERAINE, BELFAST The aftermath of a bomb blast in Coleraine in 1992. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

LOYALISTS TOOK OVER Paul Gallagher’s house in 1994 to lie in wait for a neighbour who didn’t show up.

They got tired of waiting, and trained a machine gun on him instead. He was left paralysed from the waist down, aged 21.

Now, aged 45, he’s campaigning to be granted a pension under the terms of an agreement signed by political leaders in the North more than three years ago.

Like around 500 others left with life-changing injuries as a result of the Troubles, he says he’s reminded of his attack every day.

“There’s a lot of chronic pain that I would suffer from, from that day,” said Gallagher, who’s currently studying for a PhD at Queens.

The whole paralysed area feels like I’m sitting in a pool of lava – a sort of burning sensation.

In addition to the pain he experiences from day to day, the shooting also left him with complicated internal injuries which are still causing problems decades later. He’s had to endure multiple operations over the years including one, two years ago, to have a kidney removed.

Gallagher and two dozen others who sustained severe and permanent injuries during the Troubles came together at the Wave Trauma Centre at the start of the decade to mount a sustained campaign for support.

They’ve been lobbying politicians to be awarded a special pension to cover the cost of living as they grow into old age.

The Wave centre, which supports families who were bereaved during the conflict as well as people who sustained injuries, says the pension has been costed by independent consultants at around £3 million (€3.4 million) per year.

original Paul Gallagher (second from left) with members of the WAVE Injured Group. Source: WAVE Trauma Centre

‘Medical science kept us alive’

Efforts toward establishing a peace process were already under way when Gallagher was attacked in the 1990s – making him one of the younger members of the cross-community injured group. Others are aged in their 60s, 70s and into their 80s.

Initial compensation levels offered via the adversarial Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme were wholly inadequate, the Wave centre says. Gallagher described the payments as “derisory”.

“There was one lady in our group, she was injured in 1975 – so aged 17 she was told she wouldn’t see her 33rd birthday. She’s here now today, heading into her 60s.

“Medical science kept us alive – that wasn’t factored into the compensation at the time.

“People weren’t able to go back to work. There was no disability discrimination act in place to help with the barriers and the obstacles.

“In the 70s you were left to get on with it. You were stuck in your own home and that was that.

There was some friends of ours that were teachers and they weren’t able to get back to work. The schools weren’t even helping with getting classrooms on the ground floor and things like that for them. People were left on the scrap heap, really.

What money people were granted looked after their basic needs at best, Gallagher said – but sometimes the awarding of compensation meant that other sources of finance were closed off to them.

One man in our group, he had his own business and was insured for a million pounds. Because his injuries were as a result of the Troubles this compensation scheme sort of superseded that, and he wasn’t allowed to claim from his own insurance.

Stalled 

The 2014 Stormont House Agreement included a reference to pensions for those left severely injured during the conflict.

“Further work will be undertaken to seek an acceptable way forward on the proposal for a pension for severely physically injured victims in Northern Ireland,” point 28 of the agreement said.

Gallagher said the process had essentially stalled since then – and called for politicians in Belfast, London and in Dublin to do whatever they could to help progress the issue.

He and other members of the injured group paid a recent visit to London to lobby politicians for support in advance of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Said Gallagher:

The people who were injured – these were people who were in the right place at the right time. They were in their homes when people came in and shot them or doing some shopping or having a coffee and a bomb went off and ripped their limbs off.
It’s a disgrace that we’re even having to go and ask the government to look after this. It should be the government coming to us and saying ‘what can we do for you?’ That’s the way it should have been done after the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP, which is currently in a confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May’s Conservative Party in Westminster, recently introduced a new bill in the House of Commons which would mandate the government to carry out a review of a pension scheme.

The planned legislation would compel the government to establish a review of pension support for those who were either severely injured or bereaved “as a result of acts of terrorism by an unconnected person or organisation in the United Kingdom” and to make proposals in the area.

In the past, parties in the North have been unable to agree on such pensions because of a disagreement on whether those ‘injured by their own hand’ (for example, planting a bomb that exploded prematurely) would be entitled to the payments.

Ten people – six loyalist and four republican – are thought to fit into this category currently. The DUP and the UK Government have said there can be no pension for injured combatants – but Sinn Féin have argued that to exclude them would amount to accepting a hierarchy of victims.

DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, who proposed the new bill in the House of Commons this month, told the chamber:

I do not wish to dwell for long on the definition of victim issue, save to say that to me this is very straightforward. The terrorist, who drives a van into crowds of people, who wields the knife, who shoots to kill and plants the bomb, is not a victim, even if he is killed in doing so.
To me, that is absolutely clear and right. That is why I have clearly referenced in the long title of this Bill, ‘acts of terrorism by an unconnected person or organisation’.
Little-Pengelly also paid tribute “to the many victims who have worked so hard on this issue, raising its profile and meeting politicians across the various political parties to raise awareness about it”.

Leo Varadkar visit to Northern Ireland Emma Little Pengelly, DUP MP for South Belfast, pictured at Queen's University Belfast after attending a speech by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Asked for a response to the DUP’s proposed legislation, Sinn Féin sent the following comments from MLA for Mid Ulster Linda Dillon:

“Sinn Féin fully support the introduction of a pension for severely injured victims. It should be open to all those in need of such a benefit and who fall within the medical criteria.

“We are opposed to any attempt to create a hierarchy of victimhood by excluding anyone in need of such benefits and who fall within the medical criteria.”

Dillon said Sinn Féin was proactively engaging with the Wave group and associated academics “who are working with ourselves in attempting to establish a practical resolution to this issue without introducing a hierarchy of victimhood”.

The DUP bill will have its second reading in the Commons in October. If it is progressed, and a review carried out, more steps would still need to be taken before a pension scheme for the severely injured is brought into effect.

Paul Gallagher said that it was imperative action be taken on the issue as soon as possible. Four members of the campaign group based at the Wave Trauma Centre have died since their campaign started back in 2011.

“It’s a moral issue now – they can’t just keep ignoring us,” said Gallagher.

I don’t know whether they’re just waiting for us to die off and then the issue dies with us. That’s the way some people feel.

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