Former republican and loyalist paramilitary members in Northern Ireland could be appointed to a new Victims and Survivors Forum to be set up next month.
Unionists have voiced anger that so-called “perpetrators” could be invited alongside injured and bereaved victims to serve on the long-awaited body.
The Victims Commission is to appoint 25 members to the forum — due to begin its work in September — along with eight ‘associate’ expert advisers.
But the four Commissioners have also come under fire for directly appointing the forum members rather than allowing individuals to apply.
It will begin its work in pilot form and run through until next June, holding day and evening sittings across the province. Its discussions will include:
* The definition of victimhood — hotly contested by unionists.
* Dealing with the past — the Eames/Bradley report.
* Plans for a new victims’ and survivors’ service, and, the commission itself.
Three of the Commissioners spelt out their plans to the Stormont committee which monitors the First Ministers’ Office, where Junior Ministers Robin Newton and Gerry Kelly oversee victims policy.
Commissioner Patricia MacBride told the Belfast Telegraph: “It is possible that the forum could include a number of people who have been members of illegal organisations or former members of the security forces.” Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott, a member of the committee, said: “It is beyond belief that the Commission will be able to appoint perpetrators who, for the most part, would be former paramilitary members. This would not be acceptable and I believe it is a huge test for the Commission.
“Under the current definition of victim, which the UUP has fought to change, anyone appointed could include someone who we believe is a perpetrator rather than a real victim. We need to ensure the real victims are properly represented.
“I believe the Commission would lose credibility if they were to have people who have carried out terrorist acts sitting alongside people who have been bereaved.”
The Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA also warned that the fact the Commission will make the appointments could exclude some organisations.
“I am sure the Commission is well intentioned, but this is a case of them saying ‘we know best’ and people who might want to apply to the forum will be left out,” he added.
DUP MLA Jim Shannon, also a member of the scrutiny committee, said: “Including perpetrators will damage the credibility of the forum and certainly by the time the official body is set up next year we would hope to have changed the legislation as it is at present.
“We are in no doubt there is a clear line drawn between perpetrator and victim and we intend to make sure that reality is reflected so the grey area is done away with,” the Strangford Assemblyman added.
Ms MacBride, whose IRA volunteer brother was killed “on active service” in 1984, argued however: “There is no side in this community that can walk away with a clear conscience and clean hands — for example, the victims of state violence.
“We are going to appoint a forum of people from a range of backgrounds and political views with the common purpose of ensuring the needs and aims of victims and survivors are met.
“The whole area of conflict transformation is contested history.
“These are very, very difficult debates but we need to have them. We have had preliminary discussions and hope to make appointments in early August.”
Her Commissioner colleague Brendan McAllister, an ex-mediation specialist, said: “The forum’s aim will be to facilitate consultation and discussion with victims and survivors of the conflict, which is a definition that we lifted directly from the legislation.
“We were intent on creating an open appointment process to the forum whereby we would have an advertising and public awareness campaign to make the public aware of the forum and to invite applications.
“However, on reflection, we came to the view that it was a bit early to adopt that approach.
“There was a heightened awareness of the need to reach individuals who are victims and survivors, as opposed to the organised victims’ and survivors’ groups.”
Chairman: we aren’t delivering
The four Victims Commissioners have voiced frustration over delays in setting up a victims and survivors service.
The Commissioners — chairman Mike Nesbitt, former interim commissioner Bertha McDougall, Patricia MacBride and Brendan McAllister — have said they would “live or die” by the quality of the service.
It is designed to set up new funding arrangements for victims groups and ensure funding is delivered.
But the Commission has been unable to kickstart consultations until the proposals, currently with the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, are published.
Mr Nesbitt told the Stormont committee that monitors the joint First Ministers: “Having been up and running for a year, we are not delivering as we wish to deliver, nor are we being seen to do so.
“We cannot, and of course we do not, wish to maintain such a situation. You seem to suspect that that might be out of our hands, and we cannot allow that to be even perceived to be the case.
“We cannot publish the service paper and, until it is published, we cannot consult on it. That is extremely frustrating. When we responded to the strategy paper last year we said clearly that it would live or die by the service.”
A spokesman for OFMDFM said: “Much work has already been done and it is expected that we will shortly be going out to public consultation on our proposals for the establishment of the Victims and Survivors Service.
“It will be a non-departmental public body thus providing the independence from Government and the flexibility it needs to meet the needs of victims and survivors.
“In addition we indeed to press ahead with the increased levels of funding that have been set aside by OFMDFM for victims and survivors. This has seen in 2008/09 just over £8.7m being allocated for work in the victims and survivors sector, an increase of £3.2m on the previous year,” the spokesman added.
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