Troubles Victims: Pension

Matter of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 26th May 2020.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 10:30 am, 26th May 2020

Mr Jim Allister has given notice that he wishes to make a statement, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24, on the failure to deliver a pension for victims of the Troubles. If other Members wish to be called, they should do so by rising in their places and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on this subject. I remind Members that, during this period, I cannot take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been disposed.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I am grateful, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this issue. In the week when the leader of Sinn Féin told the innocent victims of the IRA that the actions of the organisation that made them victims were justified, all victims received the kick in the teeth that the pension that they had been long promised was not going to be delivered as promised. That is an appalling failure of Government. To think that those who lost the most in the horrendous Troubles are simply to be cast aside and told that what they were promised by Government is not now at this point to be delivered is truly shocking. The reason for that is equally shocking. It is that it appears, we are told, that there is not agreement on the funding of that vital pension. I simply have this observation: why was the leverage of the opportunity of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) negotiations squandered? It was an opportunity to put the issue to bed. Why was the assurance not obtained that there would be funding, wherever it came from? That was the time to deliver. The victims were let down in those negotiations. Now, we are in the woeful situation that if the Executive are to negotiate with the Exchequer on the funding of the pension, the man who will go to negotiate — the Finance Minister — is a past member of the very organisation that made so many of the victims. A man who cannot even do his duty by the Quinn family will now, it seems, be asked to take forward proceedings with the Exchequer. What hope is there?

I have to ask the First Minister, Mrs Foster, what is the point in being First Minister if you cannot even deliver in this most demanding of situations? If you cannot deliver for the innocent victims of terrorism, what is the point in being First Minister? We are told that it is about finance. I wonder? I suspect that there is a party in the Executive dragging its feet on the issue, because it does not accept that the pension should be only for those who were innocent and who did not cause their own harm. Is that the real reason why there has been delay and failure to take this forward and failure to designate a Department? I suspect that it is. However, one thing is clear: the innocent victims — just as they have been in the definition of "victim" — have been let down again. It is an appalling indictment of Government.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I share the concerns about the failure to put in place the structures to allow victims' pensions to be paid. Victims have campaigned long and hard for many years, and, time after time, they have been disappointed. It is over three weeks since I tabled a question for written answer to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to ask for a progress report. Can it be confirmed that there is a heading in the Budget to allow money, should it become available, to be paid over the coming months?

It is about more than just money. There were structures to put in place. I would like to hear, from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, what progress has been made on those issues. What correspondence have they had, and what meetings have they held, with the Victims' Commissioner, with those who campaigned, and with those whose lives have not changed since the day and hour that they were injured: the people who continue to struggle through the daily grind of life, suffering pain and trauma and loss?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

This is a very worrying time for victims; for those who suffered throughout the Troubles and for those who are suffering even in this relatively peaceful time because of their injuries and, in most cases, because of their loss. The pension, when it was announced, was a massive step forward for innocent victims. I urge the Secretary of State to stand by the legislation that was passed at Westminster to fund the pension. It is terrible that those deserving people are being let down again. I urge the Government to release the funding.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service should administer the pension, but, surely ,the scheme should be funded from Westminster, as that is where the legislation was passed. Of course, innocent victims go right across the United Kingdom and the British Isles. The pension criteria apply to those who were injured through no fault of their own, and the pension was to be backdated to 23 December 2014. The legislation was in place long before the New Decade, New Approach deal, and those victims who are suffering were suffering during the years of direct rule. There is no doubt in my mind that the pensions must be administered and that the victims who have lost and have been hurt deserve this. Let us face it, for all that it is, the pension will never ever recoup the loss that they have felt.

It must be mentioned that there is a party opposite that was the political wing of the IRA, which caused so many of those victims. To hear its members speak in the media and demand that the British Government pay for their evil and for the cause, harm and pain that they dealt out to those innocent victims, is quite galling.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

I am sorry that I am late and apologies for not hearing the beginning of this. Sinn Féin's position has been for a very long time that there is a wide range of people — I agree with Paul Frew, and he is the only Member that I have heard, so forgive me for that — in the victims and survivors' community, right across the board, and they deserve this payment. I also agree with him that the pension will not compensate them for the suffering that they have gone through — not only the deaths and the injuries that were caused, and that were caused to their families and to their extended families into another generation — but it is some acknowledgement of what they deserve. It is an acknowledgement from society that there was a conflict and that people were badly injured and continue to suffer over a long period of time. It is well past the time that they got the pension.

The pension has been agreed. I disagree with where the British Government have brought it to, in the same way that I disagree that they have not moved the Stormont House Agreement forward, because we are dealing with the pension, but we are also dealing with the wide-ranging issue of the community of victims and survivors who have suffered so much over that long period of time. To try to define it — or redefine it, as they are, of course, trying to redefine the whole issue around the structures around legacy — is the British Government's attempt to shy away from it. They are trying to be bloody-minded about where they are going with the issue, but there is a legal definition of a victim. It has been in law since 2006, and the Stormont House Agreement has been in place since 2014. My party, and I presume every other party here, has been trying to get the structures set up and to get the pension for victims moved along from the beginning.

The issue — Paul Frew pointed towards Sinn Féin — is around the British Government trying to redefine what a victim is and deciding who should and should not be one. There has been an issue around a small number of people, and I accept that there is a deep difference of opinion between unionists and republicans, but the Government have tried to spread that out to involve hundreds of people who may not be eligible for this pension. On the issue of money, which is the issue that has been in the headlines most, it is Westminster legislation: the Assembly was not set up at the time. There is an issue around the British Government and the fact — it has been said by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — that the Executive cannot afford it. I notice that the amount is £100 million. I hesitate to think that £100 million will cover this.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Mr Kelly, I am afraid that Members were limited to three minutes each.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

I beg your pardon. I will finish with that: I think that the pension should go ahead, but it should go ahead on the basis that the British Government need to pay for it because the Executive cannot afford it.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I apologise for missing the start of this Matter of the Day and for missing most of the contributions, which I am in no doubt were extremely worthwhile.

This has been a bad week for victims: it has been a bad week for the victims' payments scheme, and it has been a bad week for the victims who are involved in the historical institutional abuse data breach.

Victims are being victimised all over again.

There are lots of arguments about who should and should not get this pension. I have a view on that and will give it a minute, but the big issue for me is that nobody took any action to get it set up. The lead Department was supposed to be nominated on 24 February: it was not. The board to deliver it was supposed to be set up: it was not. Nobody was telling victims that it was not on track. We asked the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), the Executive Office and the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS), and nobody knew where it stood. It was not until about nine days before it was supposed to go live that somebody came out and said that it was not happening. That caused huge distress in the victims community, massive distress. We still do not have a lead Department and still do not have a date for when it will be set up. That is truly disgraceful. We knew that this was coming down the line.

We can have arguments here, and we will have arguments. I absolutely see where people will have a different point of view to mine on who and who should not get it. I can never stand up and say that a perpetrator is entitled to the pension. I am sure that people will understand why I am willing to say that, why I have to say that, why I will always say that: innocent victims always have to come first. I accept that other people will have different views. Let them have different views. Let them put their case across. My view will not change.

The issue about money is not a side issue, but it is not the main issue. The Executive Office did nothing in regard to this, absolutely nothing. It is shameful. They need to take the blame for this. The issue of money is so unedifying. This is a UK-wide scheme. Innocent victims in Birmingham, Manchester, London and Warrington are entitled to the payment in exactly the same way as people in Londonderry, Belfast or Armagh are entitled to it. The UK Government have to put some money in, but we also have a responsibility here in our Executive. There has to be a conversation between our Finance Minister and the Treasury. We have to pay our way; we have to put our share in. That is what is not happening. There is no conversation, and that is a disgrace.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 10:45 am, 26th May 2020

It was my privilege to work with victims of the Troubles with organisations such as the WAVE injured group and the victims forum during my time as Deputy Chairperson of the former Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and as a participant in the Haass/O'Sullivan talks as long ago as 2013. The Alliance Party has consistently and actively campaigned for the delivery of a pension to provide a degree of financial support, independence and recognition for those seriously injured in the Troubles. The extent to which victims have had to fight for that modest assistance is wrong. All parties signed up to this approach in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and it is unacceptable that the pension has yet to be delivered. It must be recognised that the UK Government have a responsibility for funding the pension, given the commitments that they made during that agreement and, indeed, that the Executive Office made to its delivery. Victims have been let down for far too long, and Alliance will continue to do all that we can to ensure the prompt delivery of the pension scheme.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

We also support this, because we want to see that finance and that funding making their way down to victims as quickly as possible. They have waited far too long. They have been given too many false hopes in the past, most recently in the NDNA document.

We understand that there have been difficulties for the Executive in what they have been dealing with, but the Committee for the Executive Office has continued to put pressure on to see a resolution and delivery of the scheme. We have also had cross-party agreement that the bill should be paid at Westminster. The funding needs to come from there. Quite a sizeable amount needs to be found. As referenced earlier, we have been given a wide range for how much the scheme could cost, and it is a considerable amount. Given that the Bill to deliver the scheme originated in Westminster, it is the Committee's view that the finance should come from there. Also, the fact that many of the victims are from beyond the North — from places across the UK, Ireland and, indeed, the world — means that the funding originating here might not be fair. We certainly want to see the delivery of the scheme as quickly as possible.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I will speak partly informed by my experience as one of the commissioners for victims and survivors when that commission was set up in early 2007. There were four of us, and we had, at times, significantly different views on what we should do for the victims and survivors of our conflict. However, a common theme was listening to victims and survivors, and one of their common themes was that, on the day on which they or their loved ones were injured, there was an expectation that the state and the services of the state would form wagons in a circle around them and give them support. Did they need medical help? We had a health service for them. Did they need their children transported to school? We could organise that. Did they need short-term issues with cash flow addressed? We could do that. The common experience was that they were totally ignored. They were left to fend for themselves. As the years became decades and the decades passed, the common experience was a feeling that we wanted them simply to grow old, fade away and die. I think that all in the Chamber can agree that that is not what we want.

I think of someone like Jennifer McNern, who, one day in 1972, went for a drink in a Belfast city centre bar called the Abercorn and has been in a wheelchair ever since, denied, like thousands of victims and survivors, the opportunity to work for a living and save for a pension. The argument for providing that money is compelling, and I thought that we had agreed to do so. Is it a question, really, of who funds the scheme? Is it a matter of whether Treasury provides £100 million above and beyond the block grant or we take it from the Executive's Budget? Or is it about something else? Is it about who qualifies for the pension? I accept that we have a definition in the 2006 Order, but we have done plenty for people who were injured by their own hand. If somebody hurt themselves with their own gun or bomb and presented at A&E at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the NHS did not ask how they got injured and, if it was by their own hand, say, "Away you go". We have a compassionate, caring state and services, but this goes beyond that. This is about saying to people like Jennifer McNern, "We owe you", and we must find a way to do it.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Member for bringing the matter to the Chamber and giving me the opportunity to speak. I share the concerns about the process failing to be up and running as promised. It was supposed to launch at the end of May. The delay to the opening of the pension application is yet another harsh setback for the victims. The lack of clarity on who will fund the scheme is stalling the process again. That represents another setback for the very people whom it is for, not to mention the scheme's inclusion in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, the agreements made and the commitments given. As others have said, this is not new. The pension was agreed in 2014 and signed into legislation in January.

I echo the call of colleagues in the Chamber: we need answers from Executive Ministers, from the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I urge them to attend the Chamber to take our questions and give us some solid answers. What conversations have happened with Westminster? What of the Secretary of State? What conversations have happened with the various Departments and Ministers here about the setting up of the structures? Why is no clarification being given to anybody? For years, many have said that they would do all that they could and that there was a determination to get this through: let us see it. Let us see the determination to get it sorted for the sake of victims. I expect that a quick resolution of the matter is to be found with the Executive and the Treasury. Promises were made: it is absolutely time to deliver. Otherwise, our post-conflict political system will yet again fail to assist the very people who have suffered and suffered greatly.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am ashamed, in a way, to be here debating this today. Again, I go back — I do not want to go on with you — to when I was very young and had a small public house on Donegall Quay in Belfast. In that bar, I saw every atrocity that happened, every customer who lost their mum, their dad or other loved one or was hurt, damaged or injured. When I look back, I look back not at dates but at the faces of those families. I was lucky and feel privileged to have grown up in Moira. I worked in a little bar there called the Four Trees, and I remember, among those early atrocities, there was a Sergeant Brown, God rest him, who was murdered in Rostrevor. As a young man, I found myself walking behind that coffin, and so many more have I walked behind since.

Folks, I do not care where this comes from. We need to get a solution, and the victims need to be paid. No more crocodile tears, and no more playing politics. Just do the right thing. My colleague Mike mentioned the bomb in the Abercorn; no one of my vintage could forget that. There are all these tragedies, whether it is a father, mother, brother or sister locking up a pub, a business or a shop late at night and being assassinated simply because they chose to do something else in their spare time or to try the best they could to bring the community together. Folks, we are making great progress. This needs to be launched. It needs to be delivered, and it needs to be delivered now.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

As no other Member has risen in their place and indicated that they wish to speak, we will move on.