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19 October 2015

Victims must not be deserted for sake of political expediency

The aftermath of the Real IRA's Omagh bomb atrocity in 1998

So many individuals and interest groups are claiming to be victims that the word is getting a bad name. Victim is a word we should try to reserve for hapless sufferers from serious crime or shocking accidents.

I learned a lot when I became involved with some of the victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing, whose story I told in Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and the Families' Pursuit of Justice.

I saw and heard how the outpourings of international sympathy gave way to weariness and impatience and a desire that the bereaved should "move on".

For politicians in particular, there was a sense that demanding justice was interfering with what they saw as the bigger picture of the peace process.

It did not help that the victims could be difficult. They often are, mainly because having your heart broken rarely makes you easier to get on with.

For the Omagh court case, the victims taking the case had to be assessed by a psychiatrist, who found among their symptoms: "Anxiety, physical aches and pains, anger, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, weight gain from comfort eating, impaired concentration, acute stress, insomnia, claustrophobia, tearfulness, flashbacks, tension, nightmares, poor memory, low energy, jumpiness, suicidal urges, obsessional behaviour, mood swings, panic attacks, sweating, palpitations, hallucinations and breathing difficulties."

Alcohol and dependence on prescription drugs afflicted some of them too, as did various kinds of guilt; there were suicide attempts and marriage troubles and even divorce.

What all the victims had in common was deep misery at their loss, compounded by the knowledge that their loved ones had been killed deliberately.

They won their civil case, yet have not yet received a penny of the damages that the court awarded.

Few outsiders care any more. They are bored too with the victims of Libyan-sponsored terror, which ruined many, many lives, not least with the Semtex supplied by the late Colonel Gaddafi which from 1986 was contained in all the bombs made by the Provisional IRA and later the Real IRA.

The US extracted roughly a billion pounds in compensation from Gaddafi, but rejected a request from the British government to include their victims in the deal and reserved it solely for Americans.

Had Bush's great buddy Tony Blair pushed the issue with him and his then new best friend Gaddafi, he could have got a result that would have eased the suffering of many in these two islands and beyond.

But, as is becoming clear from evidence given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster, at the time Blair was once again looking at the big picture and uninterested in the little people.

In the words of Sir Vincent Fean, a former ambassador to Libya, the Blair government took the decision "not to take up the cudgels on behalf of the victims directly".

Andrew MacKinlay, a Labour ex-MP who has been fighting indefatigably for the Semtex victims, described the New Labour government's approach as "craven". The governments of Gordon Brown and David Cameron showed little more commitment.

Politicians get a bad name, yet there are many of them who, like MacKinlay, help those in need for no electoral reward.

Without Peter Mandelson, who demonstrated both empathy and commitment, the Omagh plaintiffs would not have received legal aid.

British politicians have been working with victims and lawyers in America, Ireland, Britain and Libya to try to get compensation for victims of Semtex.

The NI Affairs Committee is seeking alternatives such as persuading government to use frozen assets of the Gaddafi family. They are also investigating the conduct of this and past British governments.

Representatives of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives and Innocent Victims United have already appeared before the committee, as has Jonathan Ganesh of the Docklands Victims Association.

He spoke of one of the many forgotten victims of the 1996 Canary Wharf bomb, a cleaner in a bank who since then has been brain-damaged, blind and in a nappy. His wife's simple ambition for him is to be able to buy him an advanced wheelchair.

These innocent victims deserve our attention, patience and support. We can lobby politicians, ask awkward questions or just wish campaigners well.

Unless we confront terrorists and appeasers, we can never defeat terrorism.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards