Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Wednesday, 26 October 2005 16:27 UK

What defines a victim in NI?


By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

This week's appointment of Bertha McDougall as Northern Ireland's Interim Victims' Commissioner has raised an old debate about exactly who is a victim.

Should the family of a paramilitary killed in the course of carrying out an attack receive the same recognition as the loved ones of either a civilian caught up in an act of carnage or a member of the security forces?

Bertha McDougall,
The new Victims' Commissioner, Bertha McDougall, has promised fairness
How should the commissioner balance her handling of victims of terrorism with those whose nearest and dearest have been killed by state forces?

These concerns were central to the reaction from different victims' campaigners to the appointment of Mrs McDougall, the widow of an RUC reservist murdered by the INLA.

Jim McCabe, whose wife Norah was killed by a plastic bullet in 1981, expressed his doubts about how even-handed the new commissioner could be.

He told the BBC that he believed Mrs McDougall's judgements would be "tempered unavoidably because she is a victim".

"I believe someone should have been chosen with no history of that kind," he said.

Janet Hunter's brother, Joseph McIlwaine, was a UDR soldier murdered 18 years ago by the IRA.

She had not met Bertha McDougall before attending this week's announcement, but the new commissioner made a good initial impression and Mrs Hunter hopes she will treat all victims fairly.

Joseph McIlwaine was shot dead by the IRA in 1987

However, Mrs Hunter draws the line on who she regards as a victim.

"To be honest it shouldn't be a perpetrator", she argues, "someone who has taken a life."

Having said that, she acknowledges that some bereaved families might not have known what their relatives were involved in - in those cases she regards them as victims.

This of course leads to the question of who a perpetrator is.

The families of the IRA members killed at Loughgall in 1987 regard the SAS soldiers who killed them as "perpetrators".

The British army would reject this, arguing that they were legally authorised to use lethal force against the IRA gang attacking the local police station.

The DUP, who were involved behind the scenes in the run-up to Mrs McDougall's appointment, do not accept that all casualties of the Troubles are equal.

The Upper Bann MP David Simpson says: "There should be no question of any recognition being given to those who set out to slaughter their neighbours, only to run into the security forces.

"Any attempt to include gangsters, bombers and cold-blooded murderers will only turn this announcement into yet another opportunity tossed aside by government."

Mrs McDougall inevitably faced questions on this score when she met reporters shortly after her appointment.

David Simpson, DUP,
David Simpson, DUP, does not accept all casualties of the Troubles are equal

She neatly turned them away, telling us: "There is a definition of victims within government documents already there. It is not at this stage for me to reassess that."

So what is the government definition?

A document entitled "Reshape, Rebuild, Achieve" available from the Victims Unit within the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, defines a victim as "the surviving physically and psychologically injured of violent, conflict-related incidents and those close relatives or partners who care for them, along with the close relatives or partners who mourn their dead".

It's a bit of a mouthful, but on the face of it, this definition makes no distinction between IRA, RUC, UVF and UDR "victims".

So does a woman widely regarded as the DUP's choice for the job accept a definition which seems at odds with what David Simpson and Peter Robinson have recently said about victims?

For now, that seems to be the case, although Mrs McDougall also added: "What may happen as I talk with victims' groups, there may come a stage whenever we make recommendations to the department.

"But I wouldn't be able to comment on that now."

If Mrs McDougall tries to change the catch-all definition she'll please the DUP, but risk alienating the government who appointed her and nationalists who are already sceptical about her.

This should be an interesting topic for any future Victims and Survivors' Forum to debate.


The official definition of a victim appears to exclude no-one. Do you think that is the way it should be? Send us your comments using the form below:

The following comments reflect the balance of views received:

Everyone in NI is a victim either via choice or circumstance. On all sides.
Joe, Belfast

I fail to see why the focus of "victim" appears to be placed solely on the dead and their relatives. What price the psychological damage inflicted on those who lived - and largely still live - restricted and justly paranoid lives, for example families of security officers (surviving or otherwise)? There is a reason why Northern Ireland has one of the highest suicide rates for young people in the world. Whilst I have every sympathy for the loved ones of those killed by (para)military involvement, the damage caused by the troubles goes much further than can ever be quantifiable. Attempting definitions only exacerbates tensions, prolongs the problems and flies in the face of forgiveness and progression.
K, London, ex Northern Ireland

No-one has the choice to decide whether one victim is more worthy than another. The troubles has been recognised as politically motivated, hence all victims caught up in the conflict have the right to be treated equally and with compassion.
Barry, Dungannon, Co Tyrone

An inclusive definition is the only way forward for the whole of our society as a single entity. The dictionary definition of the word does not discriminate, rather it indicates persons who have been tricked, swindled or duped. Could we not say that of most of us during the last decades of our history? It is time for those who should know better to stop using victims as political footballs to score points from.
Alan, Belfast

Victims are the innocent people that have been murdered by terrorists. Thousands of men, women and children have been slaughtered in Northern Ireland over the last 35 years. Many of these people were killed purely because of their religion, being in the wrong place at the wrong time or merely doing their job. Paramilitaries are not victims, they are the people who killed. These terrorists can never be equated with those whom they murdered.
Peter, Belfast, Northern Ireland

There is a substantive difference between victims and perpetrators. The perpetrators killed, bombed and maimed. The victims suffered and are still suffering. There can be no comparison.
Amanda Spence, Coleraine, Northern Ireland

Anyone who carries a gun in a conflict is a participant of that conflict. It is a sad fact that participants die in conflict. Their loved ones are left to pick up the pieces and justify their participation. They are then obviously victims. This debate is about taking away that justification and thus further inflicting hurt on the other side. I think this is vicious and malicious and will do nothing to repair the deep gulf that separates our communities. If there is to be any tiers of victim hood the top tier should be for the families of children who died as a result of conflict. They are the innocents.
Tony, Belfast

Exclude no-one that lives within Northern Ireland - we all have been touched and affected by the so-called troubles for the last 30 years. Please let the politicians grow up and wise up and move forward to bring a better quality of life for everyone. Wishful thinking, I know.
Trevor Kilfedder, Belfast, Northern Ireland

No! If a man lives by the sword and dies by the sword then he is hardly a 'victim'.
Mary Rich, Reigate Surrey, England

I would have to agree with the all-inclusive definition. It could be fairly argued that those members of society who joined terror organisations (loyalist and republican) may not have done so had the political situation in Northern Ireland been different. At some stage these individuals were innocent children, it could be argued that somewhere along the line the system, the government or their immediate society failed them... as such they are victims also.
David, Belfast

If there is to be real peace and a real future, then the definition of a victim cannot exclude anyone. While it may be impossibly hard for the victim of one side to accept the victims of another, this gap should be, and must be bridged. The only ones who can lead this are the victims and their survivors themselves. It will be up to them to reach out the hand of fellowship to their neighbour. This will prove more difficult than merely stopping the war in the first place.
David Shaffner, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

A victim, without argument, is an innocent person or family member of an innocent person, who has been wrongfully murdered or maimed. The guilty are not victims. This includes all cross-sections of paramilitaries (loyalists and republicans). To call either of these criminals "victims" is a complete insult to those whose lives have been ruined by them.
Dave, Belfast, NI

It's quite simple really. If you start picking and choosing who should be considered a victim and who should not, then you will ultimately glorify one side while negating or demonising the position of the other in the history of "the Troubles". This has not worked in the past and won't work now. If healing is the true goal here, people on both sides of the divide will need to learn to forgive and be able to move on.
Ryan McManus, New York City, US

I think the definition should include everyone. Paramilitaries who have died have already paid the ultimate price. Had the troubles not existed they would still be alive and would be leading normal lives.
John Ross, Rostrevor, Northern Ireland

Families left behind by those involved in terror organisations may need extra help to come to terms with their grief but also to come to terms with the terrorist involvement of their loved ones. A victim is a victim is a victim.
Sinead, Belfast

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