Most of us remember the 1982 Hyde Park bombing by the IRA: four lives were lost and it became a symbol of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But the shock and trauma for victims lasted long beyond 1982, and the Government’s lack of support for them has been a telling indicator of its willingness to prioritise political expediency over justice.
After a two-year battle, the victims have finally been granted legal aid. They now plan to bring civil action against John Downey, who denied murdering four soldiers and was granted an “On the Run” amnesty from criminal prosecution.
The challenge in their fight for justice, and for that matter other victims of terrorism we have supported, has not been the will and determination of the victims, the lawyers and their campaigners. Ironically, the largest challenge has been to get Government support. To achieve that, everyone involved had to be steadfast, determined and as resilient to terrorist propaganda as to government platitudes.
There is a general misconception that our Government is tough on terror and good at supporting victims. The confusion is caused by the excellence of our intelligence and security forces on the one hand and the ineptitude and hypocrisy of our politicians on the other. Having been at the heart of terror victims’ campaigns around the globe for over two decades, I can vouch that the UK government’s treatment of terrorism victims is relatively one of the worst in the world.
The Government leads the world league table in terms of media air time following any domestic terror event, declaring that “the victims will have our full support” and “we will turn over every stone to deliver justice”. It is also very adept at passing knee-jerk legislation, setting up inquiries that have no bite and creating feckless victims’ bodies and tsars. These tactics are a sticking plaster of appeasement. They fail, inevitably, to monitor or challenge Government actions. They also lack imagination and rarely go against the political grain. Once the headlines dwindle, the Government closes these doors and victims are left unsupported.
There are too many examples of this, but here are a few. The 1998 Omagh bomb families spent over a decade in pursuit of civil justice, legal aid and an inquiry. When we fought for legal aid, the Government kept refusing us, saying it was not in the public interest, that the case was “speculative” and that some victims were already above the threshold for compensation as they owned their own homes. After it was discovered the defendants had legal aid but the victims did not, the Government capitulated. This same attitude was seen years later during the Hyde Park families’ application for legal aid; we made five applications over two years.
Following the 7/7 bombing in London, victims travelled to Thailand for vital medical treatment after being denied access to the NHS, while the Department for Work and Pensions cruelly refused to provide some benefits, such as the one bomb victim that came to my law partner’s attention who had lost a limb and had her mobility vehicle taken away.
Consider the fate of the UK victims of IRA, Libyan-supplied PIRA Semtex bombs. We started legal action for 152 families. While the US government intervened and forced Libya to pay billions of dollars of compensation to victims who were US nationals (including two families in our case), the UK government was working to appease big oil and Muammar Gadhafi, the former Libyan leader. Gadhafi was not pleased with our court action. Unlike the US, French and German authorities, our Government refused to espouse such victims’ cases or pressure Libya to compensate them. In fact, the May government tried to block the victims’ parliamentary Bill, brought by Lord Empey, which would enable part of the $10 billion frozen Gadhafi assets in the UK to be used to compensate the victims. At the Bill’s second reading, a government whip, Robert Syms, shouted “object” which, as intended, stopped the measure dead.
Democratic duty is being ignored. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee found the Government had let the victims down, missed multiple opportunities to secure compensation, and that its actions and inactions had been to the detriment of our victims’ campaign and their rights. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary not only chose to ignore the findings, but Theresa May’s government also had the audacity to mislead the process, cough up so-called alternative facts and put in place more legal barriers.
We repeatedly see support and justice for the victims playing second fiddle to other policy, trade, big business and even politics. Both attitude and practice needs to change. Government must foster a culture where victims of terrorism are valued, respected and fully supported. Streamlined special interest legal aid should be made available for all terror victims who have a route to justice. The victims need a new independent watch dog with teeth to ensure Government transparency in its dealings on victims and hold them to account. The Government has displayed institutional failings in its duty of care towards victims of terrorism. There is a lot of work to do to right these historical wrongs, and to make sure nobody is treated this way in future.
Jason McCue is Senior Partner at McCue & Partners, legal adviser to victims of terrorism and government adviser on counter-terrorism