'Minister for victims' appointed to ease Uster pain

Report calls for action to help bereaved and injured while Blair listens to couple caught in bombing
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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday announced the appointment of a "minister for victims" as part of a new package of measures aimed at helping those bereaved and injured in the Northern Ireland troubles.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, promised to consider sympathetically a series of recommendations in a report on victims drawn up by a former senior civil servant. In the Commons, Tony Blair declared: "The victims of violence have suffered enormously. We do not forget their suffering."

Last October, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, was asked by the Government to look at possible ways of recognising the pain and suffering felt by victims of violence.

The question has since become highly politically charged, since it is generally viewed as an issue emphasised in particular by Unionist politicians. At this moment, the Government is particularly concerned with assuaging Unionist concerns in the hope of encouraging a big Yes vote in the referendums on 22 May.

This was seen as helping explain the speedy decision to designate Adam Ingram, who is Northern Ireland security minister, as "minister for victims".

The normally reserved Sir Kenneth, who was himself the subject of an IRA attack, was clearly moved by the experience of meeting many bereaved and disabled people in recent months. Describing the work as harrowing, he said in his report: "In more than 45 years of public service, I have never been asked to undertake a task of such human sensitivity. The letters I have read and the stories I have heard will be burned into my memory for ever."

The work was, he said, a painful privilege: "Painful, because I have encountered grief and human suffering on an enormous scale. A privilege, because I have encountered also such courage, such endurance and - often from those most gravely affected - such generosity of spirit."

Among his recommendations were a review of compensation arrangements, the provision of advice on victim support, improved pain relief services and increased sensitivity from employers towards victims. He called on paramilitary organisations to reveal the sites of the graves of missing victims.

He also suggested considering an annual day of memorial and reconciliation and, at a later stage, a Northern Ireland memorial, which he said might consist of "a beautiful and useful building within a peaceful and harmonious garden".

The Rev Ian Paisley welcomed the report but said that it had been undermined by the Government's decision "to throw open the prison gates so that the terrorist murderers responsible for the pain and suffering are allowed to go free".

Welcoming the report, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble said: "I feel that in the present circumstances so much attention has wrongly been focused on the perpetrators. That has to be balanced by a greater concern for those who have suffered and those who have served."

In Dublin, the report was welcomed by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who commented: "It is clear from the report that many victims of violence feel isolated and ignored. On behalf of successive Irish governments, I acknowledge that this feeling is shared by victims in our jurisdiction. The government will consider what further steps should be taken to address their particular needs."