Policy should put the welfare of victims before the appeasement of perpetrators, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ulster Unionist chairman Lord Empey has been campaigning on behalf of victims

Ulster Unionist chairman Lord Empey has been campaigning on behalf of victims

Published: 16 July 2018

I was honoured to be asked by South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) to chair a meeting about legacy policy at Westminster the other day, and I say that because I mean it.

At conferences from the early 1980s I got to know many of the movers-and-shakers associated with Northern Ireland.

But it was when I became involved at grassroots level in the mid-1990s that my concern about what was happening to innocent people became a passion.

And then came the horror of the 1998 Omagh bomb, after which I was drawn into working with bereaved people who had been let down by the justice system but were determined to find a way of taking the bombers to court.

It was getting to know them well that made me realise how little those untouched by terrorism understand about what victims go through.

The infuriating refrain I heard so often in Dublin and London about the broken-hearted was “they should move on” – which showed a complete lack of understanding or empathy.

The years I spent involved in that case were often frustrating as well as harrowing, but I wouldn’t have missed any of the bad times as well as the good.

So I still talk and listen to victims when I’m asked and I still learn a lot.

There is much that’s wrong about the legacy proposals on which the Northern Ireland Office is now consulting – mainly because they have emerged from the 2014 Stormont House Agreement that involved the British and Irish Governments agreeing to anything that would keep the DUP and Sinn Fein in bed together.

What seems most outrageous is that victims of terrorism in Britain have been ignored – as indeed have those in the Republic of Ireland.

SEFF is doing vital work by extending its services to cover all victims in the two islands.

Our meeting was held on the day the news broke about the death of 77-year-old British Moroccan Zaoui Berezag, who knew nothing of Northern Ireland but had his life destroyed by the IRA.

In the late afternoon of February 9, 1996 Mr Berezag had finished his work as a cleaner at the Midland Bank at Canary Wharf and was in his car about to go home when the 3,000lbs bomb built and detonated by members of the south Armagh IRA – whom Gerry Adams was lauding last week as freedom fighters – exploded.

It killed newsagent Inam Bashir and his friend and assistant John Jeffries, and injured 100; Mr Berezag was left in a vegetative state. Though he improved a bit after months of surgery, as his daughter Rajaa put it: “We lost his mind that day.”

With miniscule compensation, the family struggled to give him the 24-hour care he needed. Two years ago exhaustion and hopelessness drove his wife Gemma to take her own life.

Terrorism has appalling effects in Northern Ireland, but at least there are people who have suffered similarly and public servants who are familiar with the problems.

In Britain (and the Republic), public services and most people haven’t a clue how to help.

What we heard on Wednesday included stories of people who are still suffering physically as well as mentally from the Harrods bomb in 1983, and still hoping that their government will have the decency to make it a priority to pursue compensation from arms supplier Libya similar to that obtained by Americans.

Lord (Reg) Empey of the UUP was there to update us: he has done wonderful work on this in parliament and is not without hope.

But, of course, that will benefit only a few of the innumerable victims of paramilitary brutality.

The truth is that the legacy document is a fudged, amoral mess because appeasing perpetrators seems a higher priority rather than helping victims. But the good news is that many victims are no longer prepared to stay silent in the shadows. I hope some will be at the launch, at Westminster’s Portcullis House at 1pm tomorrow of the book edited by the indefatigable councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon: Legacy: What To Do About The Past In Northern Ireland?

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