Northern Ireland

NI Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone says 'secret deals eroding trust'

Kathryn Stone
Image caption Kathryn Stone said issues relating to the bigger picture needed to be sorted out

Northern Ireland's victims commissioner has said she is concerned that revelations about secret deals are eroding the trust and confidence of people bereaved and injured during the Troubles.

Kathryn Stone, who leaves the position at the end of this week, said there are victims who feel that they have been failed by Stormont's politicians.

She said the lack of progress in finding an agreement to deal with the past has led to some victims going backwards rather than forwards.

She was speaking in an interview to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 's File on Four programme.

'Justice and fairness'

"It's not fair to say that nothing's happened," acknowledged Ms Stone, pointing to money given to victims' groups.

"But those bigger picture things, like the suspension of the Historical Enquiries Team and the huge delays in coroner's inquests - those things need to be sorted out and they need to be sorted out now."

Earlier this year, Ms Stone published her own set of proposals which included the suggestion of a pension for victims.

However, the idea has been dismissed by unionists because of concerns that some former paramilitaries could be entitled to apply for money under the scheme.

Image caption Alex Bunting said it was not fair that he did not receive a victim's pension

Alex Bunting is among the victims campaigning for a pension.

The taxi cab he was driving was blown up by an IRA bomb in 1991, leaving him severely disabled.

"On that day I didn't nearly lose my life - I lost my business, I lost my home - I lost everything," he said.

"All I am asking is for justice and fairness.

"Do you think it is right that I and people like me are left without any form of pension?

"I am talking about people who've been shot in the head, I am talking about people who have lost their limbs and I am talking about people who have been shot and paralysed."

Kathryn Stone's job over the last two years has been to try to provide a single voice for victims who often have very different yet strongly-held views.

That has been difficult given the political disagreements and news stories about so-called legacy issues during that period.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Downey received an assurance he would not face prosecution

This week, a House of Commons Select Committee is taking evidence at Stormont about the 'On The Runs' (OTR) scheme.

It was a process by which republican paramilitary suspects were able to apply to the British government for letters of assurance if they were not wanted by police in the UK.

However, an On The Run letter given in error to the main suspect in 1982's Hyde Park bombing led to a murder trial not going ahead.

Many victims have said that before that ruling, they were not aware that the scheme even existed.

"When news of these comes out again in a kind of drip, drip, drip way, again it erodes the trust and confidence," said Ms Stone.

"It's very difficult to promote a kind of transparent approach which has integrity when people know that there may or may not be something else that's going to come out."

It has also been revealed that Royal Prerogatives of Mercy were used to shorten sentences in 16 terrorism-related cases in the years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Talks chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass (right) ended in failure last Decemeber

The government has also admitted that records for pardons used during the decade between 1987 and 1997 appear to be lost.

"Perhaps they've been tucked away with the Christmas decorations, who knows - but it is such a serious thing," said Ms Stone.

"People have said to me, 'Well there's bound to be other things; how can we trust anybody?'

"And it's those questions of trust and confidence on both sides that are really, really important for people."

In December, marathon talks to try to find solutions to the problems caused by parading, flags and the past ended in failure.

When I asked Ms Stone if the politicians were capable of agreeing a deal, she simply said: "They have to be."

When I pushed her on the subject, she fell silent and dropped her head.

But after a long gap, she insisted that even given the fractious relationships of parties at the Northern Ireland Assembly, an agreement could be found.

"One of the things that is so offensive to victims that I've spent time with is the idea of moving on - drawing a line and putting it all behind you," she said

"One of the things I've said recently that it is actually very difficult to move on when you've got no legs - it is actually very difficult to move on where there's an empty space in the bed where your husband used to be.

"And unless we can support people to have answers and the justice that anyone else would be entitled to, then it will be very difficult to deal with the past.

"But we have to remain optimistic that that those things will happen."

File on Four is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST Tuesday 10 June.

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