Bombing takes high financial and emotional toll: On 24 March an IRA bomb damaged the Belfast offices of Relate, the marriage guidance organisation. John Chambers, Relate's chief officer, tells David McKittrick of the financial and emotional consequences

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The Independent Online
'WHEN we spoke in March, I said I thought the damage would be round about pounds 50,000. It turned out that was a gross underestimate, because the main building work is costing us pounds 82,500 plus VAT. The compensation offer from the Northern Ireland Office is pounds 72,000 plus VAT.

'In addition, the bill for damaged contents is round about pounds 7,000 plus VAT. We still haven't settled the contents claim, but that's likely to be less than the full cost of the contents. So we are facing a considerable shortfall that will have to come out of our own reserves . . .

'What really frustrates me is that, because we had increased our output in terms of counselling last year, we finished up with a working deficit of pounds 17,000. If I had that pounds 72,000 to spend we could have wiped out the deficit and doubled our output of work: but this is money.

'To begin with, we had a negotiation as to how much of this work was actually caused by the bomb, and how much may have been due to weaknesses in the building in the first place . . .

'The other NIO argument is that when it's all fixed up, we will have betterment in the building, which they are not prepared to pay for. If you replace your window frames and repaint the building they have a formula for discounting a certain amount of the cost depending on how long it was since the building was painted . . .

'But of course the whole building has to be redecorated . . . You have to re-plaster, you have a lot of holes here, there and everywhere . . . Looking back, what I think of is just how long drawn out the whole thing is.

'Right at the start everybody pulls all the stops out, but then within a few days you begin to get tired because it's going on and on. The tiredness gets worse as the months go on and everybody in this organisation, including myself, was absolutely gasping for the holidays.

'There is an ongoing level of stress that builds up . . . that you're not necessarily aware of until you wake up one day and you're absolutely knackered. You feel as if you've been working very hard and not really getting anywhere.

'Part of the reason for that is that if anybody was doing a restoration to their house or to their office that involved replacing every window in the building, re- plastering and repairing about 60 per cent of the walls, replacing some of the floors and repainting the entire building, you would plan for that well in advance.

'You would have special dates for different contractors to do different bits and pieces, the staff would be prepared and warned, and everything would be organised to minimise the disruption.

'The work was extremely dusty and dirty and noisy, and at times it was cold. Our counsellors were often seeing clients in very unsatisfactory circumstances. The noise, for example: you're talking to people who are already finding it difficult to say some of the things that they have to say. If there's a lot of banging going on outside the room, it makes it that more difficult.

'This is in any case always a very stressful organisation. The amount of stress that comes through our door and over our telephone on any day of the week is enormous. We have group meetings to help us all cope with that, and what we've attempted to do is to give space for people to talk about how they're feeling.

'I suppose the danger in an organisation like this is that people, because they're used to coping with stress, think they can cope with the extra pressure. There is a danger that you actually don't recognise the serious effect it's having.

'There was a lot of anger and a lot of frustration - here we were providing a service for people in distress . . . and we were already struggling to meet the demands on us. The last thing we needed was our building to be wrecked. So there was a lot of anger that wasn't expressed at the time but came out in all sorts of ways later on.

'I really cannot understand how they could put a bomb in the place in which this was placed, which was going to damage an organisation like ours, a lot of houses and a lot of other office accommodation, including the DHSS. I cannot begin to understand how that makes any sense.

'But, on a more positive note, the work should all be complete by the end of this month, and after the summer people have come back with a new sense of hope and energy.

'For me the final sign that it's over, the last thing I shall do, is to remove the broken clock from my wall. It's stuck at ten past two, which was the time that bomb went off in the early hours of the 24 of March.'