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Victim of Troubles-era bomb to take legal action over delay on victims' pensions

Jennifer McNern is taking a judicial review case against the Northern Ireland Executive.

Jennifer McNern who lost both her legs in the IRA bomb attack on the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast in 1972.
Jennifer McNern who lost both her legs in the IRA bomb attack on the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast in 1972.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

IN MARCH 1972, Jennifer McNern lost both her legs when a bomb went off in Belfast city centre. 

Her sister, who was shopping for a wedding dress, lost her legs, an arm and an eye in the same explosion in the Abercorn restaurant. The IRA was blamed for the blast. 

Today, the 69-year-old will be in court launching a judicial review case against the Northern Irish Executive in a bid to force the government to introduce a pension scheme for victims that herself and several other survivors have spent a decade lobbying for. 

The scheme itself should be sorted out by now. Last year, in the absence of power-sharing in the North, lawmakers in Westminster managed to pass plans for a Troubles-related victims pension alongside a package of measures on same-sex marriage and abortion. 

The return of Stormont in January handed the initiative back to parties in the North. But attempts to establish the scheme have foundered on bickering between Sinn Féin and the DUP, as well as a stalemate between the Executive and the UK government over who should fund it. 

Yet for survivors with life-altering, long-term injuries, this latest round of political rowing over the definition of victim threatens to dash their long-held hopes for compensation. 

After years of trips up and down to Stormont, and more recently over to London, that passage of a victims pension scheme into law last year finally seemed to have achieved what they’d long been fighting for. 

Coping in the ’70s

Jennifer remembers when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. 

“I was waiting on news about what was going to happen for people living with permanent disabilities. And there was nothing,” she tells TheJournal.ie.

“It angered me, but also sent me on a wave of depression.” 

She remembers how hard it was, back in the early 1970s, to cope with a disability. There was little to no support and no real facilities offering additional care. 

Instead, she says it was down to her mother to care for two disabled daughters. “We managed by not talking about it. Although it wasn’t the best way to cope,” Jennifer adds. 

She says that the legal challenge is now an act of last resort. “We’ve been kicked and pushed down so many roads until at the end there was no avenue open except to bring the situation to court,” she says. 

The scheme had been due to open on 29 May, but that date came and went with no sign that it would open soon. 

As things stand, little work has been done by the Northern Ireland Executive on the scheme, with no department nominated to work on it. The dispute centres on Sinn Féin’s accusation that the scheme would create a ‘hierarchy of victims’, while other critics have expressed concern that former paramilitaries could benefit from the scheme. 

Watching politicians arguing about compensation and who should be given the status of victim is enraging, she says. 

“You just feel you’re being treated with absolute contempt. That you’re not prioritised. It’s meant to be victim centred today, but there’s very little of that being shown.”

“People have struggled to keep going. They’re angry about what has happened and they’re feeling let down.

“Keeping it in the public eye was also gruelling – having to tell our stories over and over again,” Jennifer said.

‘Worried’

The case, while being taken individually by Jennifer, is perhaps the last throw of the dice for victims – many of whom have been living with their injuries for decades. 

Some are now facing into an old age with no sight yet of compensation. Since 2011, five members of the group have died – they’re still mourning the death of Paddy Cassidy, who passed away in June.

Alan McBride, a victims campaigner at the Wave Trauma Centre, said it was “beyond reprehensible” for any political party to block the pension scheme.

“Paddy always joked that he’d be dead before he’d see it,” McBride says. He appealed to politicians not to “hold up this pension for, many of them, quite elderly people”. 

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Supporters of victims can’t escape the sense that this is an argument over a relatively small amount of money. Some estimates have put the pension at around £3 million (€3.4 million) per year.

“These are hard cases and they want that little bit of financial independence before they die. We’re not talking about a huge amount of money,” McBride says. 

He’s calling on all politicians to do the “right thing”. 

“I remain worried about the capacity or the will to get this over the line. I’d hope they can get over their differences and get on and do the right thing,” he says. 

“The right thing is implementing the pension.”

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