Contribution to Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill, House of Lords, 27 March 2108

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HL Hansard, 27 March 2018, cols 736-737

My Lords, I, along with other noble Lords, was proud to be a member of a Government who devoted so much time and effort over a decade to help Northern Ireland move from the horror of its violent past towards a better future. The devolved institutions set up in 2007, after a settlement that I helped negotiate, have not functioned for the past 15 months, and there appears to be little prospect of a change in that position. I have heard nothing from the Government to suggest that they have a clue what to do. Former serving Ministers in Northern Ireland such as myself and my noble friends Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Lord Reid, Lord Mandelson, Lady Smith of Basildon, Lord Browne, Lord Rooker and Lord Dubs, feel passionately about the way that the enormous peace progress made has gone so badly into reverse.

It gives me absolutely no satisfaction to say that I really do not think this Government get Northern Ireland. I make no criticism of the Minister or the arguments he has made, or of the Secretary of State—they are both new Ministers and I wish them all the best. But I observe—as I have said before, as has my noble friend Lord Murphy—that the Prime Minister’s approach, which is a kind of fly-in, fly-out diplomacy of insufficient in-depth detailed negotiation and relationship-building with all the parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, was never going to work. You cannot achieve success in an impasse such as the one we face with this kind of approach. I urge the Government—No. 10 in particular—to reconsider this.

The measures in these Bills should never have had to come to us in the first place. They represent direct rule in all but name. But I do not think we can simply nod them through as a matter of process without addressing some of the implications of the current political impasse. The people of Northern Ireland are left in limbo, facing, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has pointed out so graphically, a serious crisis in the National Health Service, probably worse than in any other part of the UK. Last week I had the privilege to meet a group of remarkable people for whom that limbo is particularly cruel. They were members of the WAVE Trauma Centre’s injured group, and I will briefly recount two of their stories.

Jennifer was 21 in 1972 when she and her sister, who was shopping for a wedding dress, went into a Belfast city centre cafe for a coffee. A no-warning IRA bomb tore both Jennifer’s legs off. Her sister lost both legs and an arm. Noble Lords from Northern Ireland will recall the horror of the Abercorn bomb. Peter was 26 when he was shot by a loyalist gang in 1979 in a case of mistaken identity. Because of the configuration of the flat where Peter lived, the ambulance crew could not manoeuvre a stretcher around the stairs. They brought Peter down in a body bag. His father Herbert arrived at the scene and thought that his son was dead. “Oh my poor Peter” were his last words. He had a heart attack and died as Peter was carried to the ambulance. Peter is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

There are many more similarly harrowing stories. It is estimated that around 500 people in Northern Ireland are classified as severely physically injured as a direct result of the Troubles, with injuries that are at the very top of the scale: bilateral amputees, paraplegic, those blinded. All the injuries are life-changing and permanent. Because of their injuries most have been unable to work to build up occupational pensions and today have to survive on benefits. The levels of compensation paid through the adversarial criminal injuries compensation scheme were wholly inadequate and there was no disability discrimination legislation in the early days to protect them. Frankly, these people were not expected to live beyond a few years. But they have and the passage of time has compounded their problems as many suffer increasing physical distress as a result of deteriorating health and chronic pain.

They are campaigning for a special pension of the type that is in place in most other countries that have suffered from conflicts similar to that in Northern Ireland. All they want is some semblance of financial security and independence as they grow into old age in the most difficult circumstances. I find their argument compelling. The pension has been costed by independent consultants at around only £3 million to £5 million per annum—a figure which will reduce year on year as the majority of the severely injured are moving into old age. I appeal to the Government to provide this money now. It is a small amount to rectify a big injustice.

All the Northern Ireland parties are on record as saying that they support the idea of a pension for severely injured people such as those who come to see them and argue their case. But saying they support it is about as far as it has gone because their support for the severely injured is not unconditional. Of the 500 severely injured, there are 10 or so who were injured by their own hand; for example, planting a bomb that exploded prematurely. Of the 10, six are loyalist and four republican. It is no surprise that the DUP and Sinn Féin are split. The DUP says there can be no pension for those injured by their own hand. Sinn Féin insists that they cannot support a pension that excludes them as this would be tantamount to accepting a hierarchy of victims.

The injured group, who are unfairly drawn into this toxic debate, argue that it is not for them to say who should or should not qualify. What they do insist is that it is unjust, unfair and immoral for politicians to say that because they cannot agree about 10 people the other 490 must get nothing. I totally agree with them, and I hope the Minister will respond positively. The injured group, all of whom have been injured through no fault of their own, regard their plight as being as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else, and the legacy issues are not devolved entirely. But the Government refuse to accept that they are part of the legacy for which they have responsibility. If the devolved institutions are, for whatever reason, unable to deliver on this—and of course, suspended, they are unable to deliver on this; and tragically, we are unlikely to see those institutions in place for some considerable time—the Government at Westminster surely must step in now, because it would be shameful if the people who have suffered so much through no fault of their own were told that nothing can be done because of political buck-passing.

On 20 February, in the other place, the Secretary of State said that she recognised the Government’s responsibilities to,

“provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/2/18; col. 33.]

I agree, and I appeal to her and to the Minister to act now. They have the power to do so. It is a very small amount; it would not be noticed on the overall allocation for Northern Ireland or, indeed, the Whitehall budget. It would not be noticed at all. I have met men and women in the WAVE trauma group who by any definition have “suffered most”, in the Secretary of State’s phrase. Unless both this Parliament and the Government accept that responsibility and act immediately to provide pensions for these 490 people, it will be to our eternal shame.

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