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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 23 March, 2018

'Politicians can't agree about 10 people - so another 490 injured through no fault of their own get nothing'

The political impasse in Northern Ireland leaves those injured in the Troubles in legislative limbo, writes Dennis Godfrey.

Dennis Godfrey

THE LOYALIST GUNMEN who burst into Peter’s home dragging his wife by the hair down the hallway were not looking for him.

Mistaken identity.

They shot him twice.

Because of the configuration of the flat where Peter lived the ambulance crew could not manoeuvre a stretcher around the stairs.

They brought him down in a body bag.

His father Herbert arrived at the scene and thought that Peter was dead.

He had a heart attack and died as Peter was carried to the ambulance.

“My poor Peter” were his last words.

All this happened in 1979 when Peter was 26.

He is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

He is part of the forgotten legacy of the Troubles.

As is Margaret.

She was a 38-year-old mother of four young children in 1982 when an IRA bomb blew the windows of her office into her face and body and she was completely blind in that instant.

Glass was also blown into her mouth and she had to undergo years of painful dental reconstructive work.

Over 35 years later fragments of glass still work their way to the surface and break the skin on her arms and legs.

And when the sun catches her face her eyelashes sparkle.

And Paul who was 21 in 1994 when loyalists took over his house to lie in wait for a neighbour who didn’t turn up.

They got tired of waiting and so they emptied a machine gun magazine into him instead. He is paralysed and like the others in constant pain.

Last year he had a kidney removed as a result of his internal injuries.

The Victims and Survivors Service, the statutory body in Northern Ireland that manages services for victims and survivors of the conflict, estimates that there are around 500 people like Peter and Margaret and Paul who are classified as severely physically injured.

These injuries are at the very top of the scale: bilateral amputees, paraplegic, blind.

All the injuries are life changing and permanent.

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

Because of their injuries they have been unable to build up occupational pensions and today have to survive on benefits.

The levels of compensation paid through the adversarial Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme were wholly inadequate and there was no disability discrimination legislation in the early days to protect them.

Frankly these people were not expected to live beyond a few years.

But they have and the passage of time has compounded their problems as many suffer increasing physical distress as a result of deteriorating health and chronic pain.

Most of them are moving into old age without the financial security that they otherwise would have had.

Political limbo

What has become known as the Injured Group at the WAVE Trauma Centre came together in 2011.

The WAVE Trauma Centre is the largest cross community victims’ and survivors’ support group in Northern Ireland.

The Injured Group was initially made up of 25 men and women who had been severely injured and who started a campaign for a special pension so that they could have some semblance of financial security and independence as they grew into old age in the most difficult circumstances.

Virtually every country in the world that has experienced conflict has put some form of reparations mechanism in place.

The pension has been costed by independent consultants at around £3 million (€3.4 million) per annum – a figure which will reduce year on year as the majority of the severely injured are moving into old age.

The Injured Group has been lobbying Northern Ireland politicians and the UK Government and all parties are on record as saying they support the idea of a pension for severely injured people like those who come to see them and to argue the case.

But saying they support it is about as far as it has gone because support for the severely injured is not unconditional.

Of the 500 severely injured there are ten – six loyalist and four republican – who were ‘injured by their own hand’ (for example, planting a bomb that exploded prematurely).

The DUP along with the UK Government and the wider unionist community say there can be no pension for those injured by their own hand.

Sinn Fein insist that they cannot support a pension that excludes them as this would be tantamount to accepting a hierarchy of victims and would in effect change the 2006 definition of ‘victim’ which does not differentiate between an injured combatant and an injured civilian.

injured Peter Heathwood (third from the right) and Paul Gallagher (fifth from the right) with members of the WAVE Injured Group. Source: WAVE Trauma Centre

The Injured Group who are unfairly drawn into this toxic eligibility debate argue that it is not for them to say who should or should not be eligible.

What they do say is that it is unjust, unfair and immoral for politicians to say that because they cannot agree about 10 people the other 490 who were injured through no fault of their own must get nothing.

But even if the will was there to do the right thing the current political impasse in Northern Ireland leaves the injured in a legislative limbo.

As far as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is concerned this is a devolved matter and not for him despite the fact that the UK Government has an overarching responsibility for legacy issues and the plight of the severely injured is as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else.

Indeed it would be hard to find a more physical manifestation of that legacy than Margaret, who has no eyes, pushing the wheelchair of Jennifer, who lost her legs in a no-warning IRA bomb in 1972 when she was 21.

Meanwhile the UK Government will consult on measures to deal with the Past as set out in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The pension is referenced in the Stormont House Agreement but will not be part of the consultation.

A proposed ‘statute of limitations’ for security force personnel is not part of the Stormont House Agreement but will be included in the consultation.

The severely injured get the message but they won’t give up.

Dennis Godfrey is the spokesperson for the WAVE Trauma Centre

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