The letter of Westminster Law has meant that Michelle O’Neill must accede to designating a Stormont department to administrate the injured victims’ payment scheme. She had delayed doing this due to issues of eligibility to and financing of the scheme, issues which remain unresolved.
Any nuance or argument were for the most part lost in public discourse as the case had been brought by Jennifer McNern who cut a dignified and sympathetic figure outside Belfast courts as she felt forced to take the case when it became clear that Sinn Féin was preventing the scheme beginning in May.
That a department has now been designated however does not resolve the issues at stake. Naomi Long may well regret being so quick in May when she offered to “take” on administrating the scheme in the Department of Justice when approached by injured campaigners, as the scheme does not fit in Justice.
Assessing eligibility, the extent of injuries, whether or not they are serious enough or permanent, and thus the rate of pension individuals will get is a massive responsibility, especially in cases of psychological injury. Currently no one has any idea how an extent of psychological injury might be measured. There is no tool to determine whether psychological injury is 14%, 24% and so on. While physically injuries have a cruel but efficient matrix to do so, nothing exists which similarly captures psychological injury.
Determining a process which will filter those who are not automatically entitled to the pension and have to go and face an appointed panel, because they once served a sentence or may not be “appropriate”, falls onto department officials too. The “guidance” issued by the Northern Ireland Office does not help in this regard. Will every applicant declare convictions or the belief that there might be issues that make them inappropriate? Or will every applicant be subjected to PSNI/Military Intelligence vetting before they go into the acceptable applicants vs the unacceptable applicants piles? Multiply complexity regarding this by 100 if the applicant’s injuries were sustained in prison or a holding centre.
How will the process support bereaved families? One member of the family may be eligible for the payment because they were at the scene when a loved one was killed but the rest of the family will not. Cruel doesn’t begin to address this issue or the fallout.
Victimhood is complex and multi-layered. But that does not matter to a British government in London whose only interest in our shared past is to project a pair of clean hands, deny wrongdoing and secure impunity for its own forces and decision makers.
Local parties however understand that these are hugely contested issues and any system needs to address complexity and embrace the widest nature of experience. For them, their biggest challenge now is how to make bad law from Westminster fit. And the truth is sadly that it cannot.
The scheme is likely to cost at least £800million. This is modest conjecture though as there is currently no idea how many people live with conflict related psychological injuries, that are permanent and over 14%, on these islands. And so far, London, despite hurling this legislation onto Belfast, is unforthcoming with as much as a brass farthing.
Stormont is undermined by this legislation in fundamental ways. And it sets an unpalatable precedent for devolution.