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Artillery Row

Why compensate the families of terrorists?

It would be immoral as well as irresponsible

This week, the Commission for Victims and Survivors (CVS) in Northern Ireland recommended that families of terrorists killed in the Troubles, as well as relatives of genuine victims, should be compensated for their deaths. The commission estimated that this scheme would cost the Stormont Executive £130 million overall, seemingly based on a one-off payment of around £10,000 each.

In 2009, the Consultative Group on the Past, another publicly funded body, led by former churchmen Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, generated a furious response when it suggested a similar plan. The payments, critics pointed out, would benefit the families of terrorists like Shankill Bomber, Thomas Begley. This IRA “volunteer” planted a bomb at Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road in Belfast in 1993. The device exploded prematurely, killing him and nine other people.

In fact, the Eames/Bradley proposal caused so much anger, and it was rejected so unequivocally by victims’ groups, unionists and the government, that the CVS’s attempt to resurrect the idea is as unfathomable as it is grotesque. The report is effectively a populist grenade, lobbed at the province’s Executive Office by the outgoing victims’ commissioner, Ian Jeffers, who is leaving to take up a CEO post at the charity Co-operation Ireland.

In the foreword to his document, Jeffers argued that the “recognition payment” would help with “promoting reconciliation” in the province. And, in response to a question from Northern Ireland’s only unionist daily newspaper, the News Letter, a spokesperson said that the commission is, “bound by the definition (of victims) in the 2006 Victims and Survivors Order which founded our office.”

That legislation was drafted by Tony Blair’s government in 2006, after the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to share power under the St Andrews Agreement. It described a “victim” of the Troubles as, “someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident”. This value free definition, amenable to former paramilitaries, summed up many of the problems that Northern Ireland has experienced in dealing with its violent past.    

It is an idea that underpinned Jeffers’ assertion that “reconciliation” can be assisted by blurring the line between victims and victim-makers, rather than asking perpetrators to admit wrong-doing and accept that illegal violence was always an unjustifiable way to pursue their political objectives. It also helped the relentless Sinn Fein campaign to portray the security forces as instigators and aggressors during the Troubles, rather than protectors of life and property, as well as a bulwark against outright civil war.

The commission’s report is likely to become another weapon in the armoury of Irish separatists, used to depict Westminster and unionists as obstructive and recalcitrant when it comes to facing up to history. Another scheme, that provided pensions for people disabled during the Troubles, was delayed for decades because a tiny number of IRA men insisted that they should be eligible. The commission’s proposal, of course, would cover the families of loyalist paramilitaries too, but, previously, they have been more reticent about claiming the status of victims.   

The CVS insinuated that its intervention is, in part, intended to get round the government’s Legacy Act, which, among other measures, tried to limit attempts to pursue compensation for Troubles incidents through the civil courts. The Republic of Ireland announced before Christmas that it would challenge this legislation through the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.

In fact, the law attempted to breathe realism into a “legacy process” that had become skewed in favour of the main perpetrators of violence, the IRA; focussing Troubles inquiries on the state and adopting theories of “transitional justice” favoured by republican campaigners. In contrast, the commissioner’s proposal is based, like similar ideas, on stripping the past of its context. It implies that people who were murdered in cold blood and those who died as they tried to kill others were morally equivalent.  

It would be immoral, as well as irresponsible, to fund what Mr Allister described as a “Provo pay day”

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader, Jim Allister, who is also a KC, suggested in a statement yesterday that the scheme could infringe basic principles of our legal system. He pointed out that even people killed in road traffic accidents receive no compensation if they were driving recklessly. It would be immoral, as well as irresponsible, to fund what Mr Allister described as a “Provo pay day”. 

The devolved executive in Northern Ireland, of course, is not currently operating and cannot possibly implement a compensation scheme. The DUP boycotted power-sharing almost two years ago, because of the Irish Sea border. That problem has not been resolved, but the party is apparently considering a return to government, based on enticements like a new “needs based” funding system for the province’s public services.

That financial package will certainly not cover an expensive Troubles’ compensation plan, which the DUP, in any case, could never endorse. Quite what the commission hoped to achieve, then, by reviving this controversial suggestion, is not clear. From Northern Ireland’s endless array of commissions, ombudsmen and arms-length bodies we can draw one firm lesson: the devil will find work for idle hands.

But what are the implications for men like Sunak, Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker? Surely Tory ministers wont propose to give British taxpayers money to terrorists who slaughtered men, women and children? This should be a no-brainer, morally and politically. But its a grim indictment of where we are, and previous policies on Northern Ireland, that this is not taken for granted.

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