27 January 2006

Victims' chief 'no political football'

Belfast Telegraph

Bertha McDougall: 'I will be my own harshest critic'

By Noel McAdam
27 January 2006

Victims' Commissioner Bertha McDougall has bluntly warned: "I do not want treated as a political football."

In her first full interview since taking up the position, the interim commissioner insisted: "I don't want this job to be knocked around from pillar to post".

Mrs McDougall is determined to ensure her independence, not least from the Government. "I intend to be my own harshest critic," she said.

And as she prepares to meet the province's political parties, the RUC reservist's widow also made clear she is not affiliated to any of them.

But the controversy over her appointment will not go away, although court action prevents Mrs McDougall from making any comment.

The widow of a man who died after being hit by a plastic bullet fired by a police officer has initiated a High Court judicial review on the grounds that the post does not command cross-community support and was a concession to the DUP which has said it "supported" the appointment.

The SDLP has also lodged a formal complaint, arguing the appointment did not follow normal procedures.

But, for Mrs McDougall, the work has to go on. Newly-ensconced in offices in central Belfast, she has already met a total of 26 groups - including former loyalist and republican prisoners - since taking up the position on December 5.

Already, one widely-supported proposal for a one-stop-shop for victims - "which could at least signpost people properly" - is emerging from the discussions.

The Commissioner said she has declined to become involved in arguments over any hierarchy of victims, with some being regarded as perpetrators.

"My role is to reflect the views of all victims, including their different views, and it is not for me to make judgments," she said.

Mrs McDougall hopes her recommendations - to be published at the end of the year - will be building blocks to develop better co-ordinated services, including pain management, counselling, practical help, associated financial resources as well as the idea for some form of victims' forum.

"Victims want acknowledgement and recognition of the pain they have suffered. They also want to get to the truth of what happened in particular circumstances. They want justice and they want practical help," she said.

"I would challenge any Government against not listening to the voices of the victims. There is desperate hurt out there and society cannot pretend it is not there."

Mrs McDougall said official figures estimate there are around 120,000 immediate family members sharing a sense of victimhood in Northern Ireland.

"It is very humbling to look at a figure like that (which) doesn't even include the communities around them," she said.

In meeting with the victims' groups, she wants to ensure all victims are aware of help which is available.

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