I was injured in 1994. I was only 21. Four UDA gunmen entered our family home in Lenadoon, a nationalist housing estate in West Belfast, lying in wait for a neighbour. We were held hostage for an hour. When the neighbour didn’t turn up they emptied a machine gun into me instead. I was shot six times in our living room, in front of my mother, father, brother, and sister. I was hit in my arm, my lung, my spleen, my femur and my spine. I was paralysed in an instant and now get around in a wheelchair. I live in chronic pain and suffer from constant infections, which only last year led to the loss of a kidney. Life is not easy.
A REPEATED STORY
But my story could be repeated many times and in many ways. That is how I came to be involved in the WAVE Injured Group. I met people there from across the community who had been injured in shootings and bombings. People who were paralysed, blinded and had their limbs ripped from their bodies. At 45, I am one of the youngest out there with these types of injuries. There are people who were injured before I was born. They are now in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They have been campaigning for an Injured Pension since 2011. They are still waiting.
A STRUGGLE IN POVERTY
Most severely injured people, when they emerged from their comas, were left to struggle with long periods of rehabilitation in hospital. People came out to find that they had lost their jobs, their businesses, and their homes, as they couldn’t pay the mortgage. Many faced a bleak future, living in poverty, destined to live a life on benefits. Many now live in fear of the onslaught of welfare cuts.
There was no Disability Discrimination Act in place back then. Many did not and could not return to work. We built no pension, we could not afford to save. Many were left on the unemployment scrapheap. Along with the stigma of being disabled, crippled, and the problems and obstacles that brings, we also had to contend with “Troubles Stigma”. Even if you were injured as an random member of the public, people cast judgement on you. “No smoke without fire” is a common prejudice; or “You must have been a bad boy, to have that done to you”. Victims are still blamed for their fate.
The confrontational legal system insulted many of us with derisory compensation packages that were based on invalid assumptions about our life expectancy. Some were told that they would only live for ten or twenty years. One of our colleagues, who was 17 at the time, was told that she would not see her 33rd birthday; she is now approaching 60. Nobody expected us to survive for so long. Yet, survive we have, only to be faced with lifelong psychological, emotional and physical pain, on a daily basis. Medical science kept us alive, and for longer, but as we age our conditions get worse.
GIVING BACK DIGNITY
In no way would a pension compensate us for our years of suffering, but it could go some way to allowing us to cover the costs of old age and the additional expenses incurred as a result of our specific injuries, for example, disability aids. Or even to pay for carers to look after us instead of inevitably spending our dying days in nursing homes. Some have even said that they would love to be able to buy treats for their grandchildren. It would give us back some dignity and show us that society cares about us.
THE WORK IS DONE. IT IS FEASIBLE
All of the research and groundwork has been completed, the pension has been costed and it is ready to be implemented. Cost is not the issue. It is projected that a pension would cost £3m per annum. It is totally feasible. We are not asking for a lavish salary. It only works out about £150 a week for approximately 500 people.
STORMONT HOUSE AGREEMENT CONSULTATION
The point should be made that, because of the efforts of the WAVE Injured Group, the provision of a pension for the severely injured was part of the Stormont House Agreement (para. 28). Yet we have been told that the pension will not form part of the proposed legacy consultation. We find this deeply shameful and insulting. How can such an important issue which will make a real and tangible difference to the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society be ignored?
While we will not get involved in the arguments around the merits of a proposed statute of limitations, we do take issue that something that was not agreed in the Stormont House Agreement has been put into the consultation, yet the pension is dropped.
NOT THEIR RESPONSIBILITY
The new Secretary of State told Parliament, only a week ago, that the Government has responsibilities to ‘…provide better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who suffered most during the Troubles’. Is she saying that the severely injured are not her responsibility?
Are we being told, in effect, that people like Jennifer, who had both legs torn off by the IRA in the Abercorn bomb in 1972, when she was 21, is not someone who ‘…suffered most during the Troubles’
And Peter, who has been in a wheelchair since 1979, when he was 26, after he was shot by loyalists when they were looking for someone else and whose father dropped dead from a heart attack when Peter was being carried to the ambulance, is not someone who has ‘…suffered most during the Troubles’, as far as the Secretary of State is concerned.
Or Margaret, who was blinded in an instant when an IRA bomb blew the windows of her office into her face and body, in 1982, and who still has glass working its way to the surface, 36 years later, is not someone who has ‘… suffered most during the Troubles’, according to the NIO.
Not only are the severely injured among those who have ‘… suffered most’, we still suffer and will continue to suffer every day until we die.
A DEVOLVED MATTER?
We have been told by the NIO, that the pension issue is a devolved matter; to be dealt with by the local assembly. There is no local assembly. This position is untenable. We are in legislative limbo.
The Injured Group has been campaigning for over seven years to get legislation through the Assembly but while all local parties support the idea of a pension for people like those in the Injured Group, the fact remains that they have been unable to come to an agreement on who would qualify. They have kicked this particular political football into touch and refuse to deal with it. Such issues should not be left to this place.
We do not see this as a devolved matter, a welfare matter, a social security anomaly. This is a legacy issue, plain and simple. The severely injured people of the Troubles are THE physical manifestation of this legacy. We should be treated as such. The mechanism that provides the pension may be eventually devolved to an NI Department, but the concept of a pension is a legacy matter. Instead we are ignored. Marginalised. Excluded. Forgotten.
We should be part of the Stormont House Agreement as agreed by the two governments and the five main parties. They all have a responsibility. The UK Government (NIO) should be launching their consultation into the SHA mechanisms soon. We ask this that the Injured Pension be put into the consultation, to let the public examine it, and to see it implemented once and for all. We call on the government to legislate for this pension. This government should live up to its responsibilities as a so-called modern democracy and look after this group of forgotten people, before it is too late. Four members of our group have died since we started our campaign. How many more will die before this is implemented?
A HUMAN RIGHT
The government is signed up to a range of international agreements at the UN which set out the obligations for states to look after victims of conflict; to provide redress, to repair harms. They are based on human rights. We are human beings who were left for dead. Inches, minutes away from death. But we survived. We deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. This should have been done for us already. We should not be made to beg for this. We should not have to come onto the media to plead our case. Or to lobby our politicians. We should not have had to do all the research. To do all the legwork. This is the responsibility of the British government. This all happened on their watch. It is high time they did something about it. It is shameful and morally indefensible that the Government turns its back on us.
THE HOPE OF THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT?
This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. In the main, it stopped the killing machine. It brought about political structures. It created a new type of society. It gave hope. I voted for it. I knew that the likes of Johnny Adair, who was convicted of directing terrorism, of which my shooting was a part of, would be released after two years. I could stomach that for peace. That was a price I paid. I gave up justice for peace. But we expect something in return from our society. We expect social solidarity and social justice. The Agreement stated that they would look after the victims. They said that it was “essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation”. They have yet to do this for the injured. They have been excluded and forgotten, again.