During my time as a Commissioner for the Victims and Survivors of our Troubles, a regular and heated topic of conversation was the definition of a victim. The passion was generated by the legal definition, contained in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. In essence, this makes no distinction between someone who is injured by a no-warning bomb blast, and a bomb-maker who injures himself in the process of putting the device together. In other words, those who actively chose to get involved, and those who had no chance to avoid the consequences of the other's actions, are classified as the same. This may be legal, but it cannot be right. It is also far from the whole story.
Des used to work as a prison warder. This was in the days when some people took an unhealthy interest in where prison officers lived, what they drove, and what time they left home. His professional career ended prematurely, when he suffered a stroke. This was right after he spent an uncomfortable fortnight policing a serious and prolonged disturbance at HM Prison Maze. He spent two weeks in riot gear, working 80 hours a week, fearful for his safety inside and outside the prison.
His medical report concludes like this: "Mr X has suffered from a major disabling illness which will have affect [sic] him for life, and may have reduced his life expectancy. ... The only significant risk factor in this case is the period of very marked stress which immediately preceded it and which was employment related." Does this sound to you like Des is a victim?
Let's cross-reference to the 2006 Order. It defines victims and survivors in several categories, one of which is "someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident." Do you think this confirms Des is a victim?
In fact, Des has never been defined as a victim by any of the relevant authorities, despite the fact that the Consultant Physician to the Stroke Unit at Belfast City Hospital wrote the medical report cited above; despite the fact Des has been stroke-free before and since; despite the definition of victim and survivor; despite the fact that he has lost earnings measurable in six figures because of the stroke and the enforced early retirement from his chosen career.
How many are there like Des? How many people suffered strokes or other debilitating illnesses because of the stress and pressure they suffered because of what they did as soldiers, police officers, fire or ambulance service workers, or prison warders? And how many are not classified as victims and survivors of the Troubles?
Des holds out little hope of change. The Northern Ireland Memorial Fund has been instructed not to take any new applications, pending the introduction of a new Victims Service from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. No-one is yet sure what that Service will look like, what it will do, and how it will be different, or better, than the multiple services that exist currently. One measure of improvement might be whether it acknowledges that Des is indeed entitled to help.
It strikes me that victims often feel doubly victimised, first by the catastrophic event that made them a victim in the first place -but then a second time, by the shock of discovering the state and its public services are not there for them as they had always imagined they would be. The latter is often harder to take. You can probably imagine why.
Follow Mike Nesbitt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mikenesbittni