Northern Ireland ReparationsExtrajudicial Executions/Massacres

Our final report from the RRV project reflects on the plight of those bereaved during the Troubles.

Compensation is an essential measure to remedy the harm caused to victims of unlawful killings. Compensation can acknowledge some of the loss and suffering next of kin experience, as well as providing them with some dedicated financial support in moving forward. While there have been efforts in recent years to remedy the harm caused to victims of historical institutional abuse and those seriously injured during the Troubles through compensation, providing similar measures to those bereaved as a result of the Troubles has been more difficult.

It is assumed that compensation during the Troubles to victims was sufficient and ‘generous’, given that £186 million was paid out in compensation between 1969-1998, with £26 million awarded to bereaved families. However, this misrepresents the experience of victims. Most compensation was paid for property damage, and before 1977 there was no payment for bereavement, only loss of income or funeral expenses. From the data of 1000 compensation cases (55%) during our period (1966-1976), the total paid to bereaved families was £6.9 million. Furthermore, many families were awarded only a few hundred pounds, some less than £50, which was insufficient to compensate for the extrajudicial killing of their loved one. Despite this there has been no comprehensive account of how compensation was made to bereaved victims. This report provides new insights into the inadequacy of compensation to bereaved victims. In particular this stems from compensating for only income, expenses and dependency, instead of also compensation for suffering in the form of a non-pecuniary monetary award.

Now is a good time to revisit these issues, as the UK government is foreclosing victims’ ability to seek redress through the courts through the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill and there has been recent a government commitment to pay £87,500 to army widows, including those killed during the Troubles. While there are some ongoing compensation settlements for those killed during the Troubles, this is piecemeal and ad hoc, based on inquest, inquiry or court findings into individual or group killings. At the same time, the Victims’ Payment Board, established to adequately compensate disabled victims of the Troubles, has awarded compensation to four bereaved family members who were present in the immediate aftermath of an incident that killed their loved one. Compensation for all victims killed during the Troubles is a thorny issue. The recommendation by the Consultative Group on the Past of a recognition payment of £12,000 to all those bereaved resulted in all of its recommendations being rejected on the grounds that those who died while being involved in paramilitary groups would benefit from the scheme in the same way as civilians, thereby closing down the conversation on compensation for those bereaved. Yet nearly fifteen years on, the Victims Payment Board is awarding compensation for seriously injured victims, including those with relevant convictions.

We frame these issues as reparations, reflecting victims’ right to reparations in international human rights law, alongside their rights to truth, justice and non-recurrence. Unlike truth and justice, which enable society and victims to know what occurred and who was responsible, reparations are measures that directly benefit victims by alleviating their continued suffering and remedying their past losses. Reparations includes measures such as compensation as well as rehabilitation, restitution (land/rights), measures of satisfaction (apologies, investigations, memorials) and guarantees of non-recurrence (institutional reform). While a number of compensation schemes did operate in Northern Ireland to mitigate the cost of the Troubles, none was fit for the purpose of remedying victims’ harm, as their primary aim was to keep the economy afloat and enable insurance companies to continue to operate. In particular, these schemes did not remedy victims’ non-pecuniary harm, i.e. their bereavement suffered from the killing of a loved one. Articulating a bereaved payment as reparations helps to fix it as a legal entitlement of victims, as well as to contrast previous efforts as inadequate and ineffective in remedying victims’ harm.

In our report we draw upon archival and qualitative fieldwork with victims and civil society actors on reparations in Northern Ireland. The research involved interviews with over two dozen individuals, archival work in PRONI and the Linenhall Library, as well as online newspaper archives. In all, 1000 compensation claims for deaths were identified (55%), which allowed analysis in terms of victim status, gender, marital status and age. The report concentrates on the period of 1966-1976, reflecting the onset and height of the Troubles, in which in the space of a few years half of all those killed during the conflict died (1,799-1,866). It also focuses on this period as Northern Ireland in 1968 had just introduced a new compensation law in line with England and Wales, which was later revised in 1977. This later scheme, including a guaranteed bereaved payment for widows, was amended in the 1980s and replaced in 1988 with a new scheme to include a bereaved payment for parents who had lost a child under the age of 18. Importantly, although these later schemes were introduced to correct the shortcomings of those that preceded them, none was applicable retrospectively and therefore did not rectify the inadequacies of past payments.

Our report presents five key findings:

  1. Compensation during the height of the Troubles was unequal and inadequate. For incidents in which multiple people were killed, some families were paid £50-90 and others £15,000. The families of women, single people, children and cohabitees who were killed during the Troubles were paid a pittance, some as low as £43. Over a third of our sample received less than £1500, 100 of whom received less than £150 or no award at all. These were not isolated instances. Rather, they reflect the fact that, for those bereaved victims who were not dependent on their loved one’s income, the law provided payment of expenses only, i.e. funeral costs. This was later remedied through subsequent laws, but it was only in 2002 that a bereaved payment was established for all those killed as a result of crime. While generally the families of civilians who were killed were unlikely to have access to a work pension unlike those in the security forces, widows of killed soldiers and police officers were often discouraged from claiming or withdrew their claims.
  2. Compensation had a strong gendered dimension. Although women account for only 10% of those killed during the Troubles (1966-1976), they were the main claimants of compensation. The families of women who were killed disproportionally received lower awards than men, and cohabitees were ineligible for claiming for the loss of their partner. Sixty-four of the 90 women in our sample (71%) received less than £1500, while a third (31) received £150 or less. There was also discrimination in how women were treated by courts, receiving lower awards due to their age, “good looks” or the brevity of their marriage to the deceased.
  3. While most claims went through the courts, those involving deaths by the army were dealt with through the Ministry of Defence, whose policy was to reach a settlement rather than go to court where they would likely have to pay victims two or three times the amount of compensation otherwise offered. The policy of settling with victims was also used to avoid cases being heard before the European Court of Human Rights in an effort to avoid censure from Strasbourg and to maintain army morale.
  4. There is a growing divide between those recent cases that have clarified the fate of those killed during the Troubles and the responsibility of the state through inquiries and inquests, and other victims who do not have access to such a process. The outcomes of these inquires and inquests have enabled family members to bring civil litigation against the UK government and as a result secure compensation settlements. In the past five years, these settlements include payments ranging from £75,000 to £625,000 for deaths of family members in the early 1970s. Some bereaved family members are also benefiting through payments from the Victims’ Payment Board based on them suffering serious injury amounting to disablement from being present in the ‘immediate aftermath’ of an incident in which their loved one was fatally injured. While this number is small (four cases so far), it is an arbitrary distinction and based on the chance of a bereaved family member finding the family member injured after a bombing or shooting, leaving other family members ineligible who do not meet this criterion.
  5. The UK government’s proposed Legacy Bill will shut down the civil litigation avenue for those bereaved seeking adequate compensation. Given this direction of travel a complementary bereavement payment scheme should be opened to victims who lost a loved one during the Troubles. This would be a counterpart for the work already being carried out by the Victims Payment Board on behalf of seriously injured victims by compensating the bereaved. In addition, given the unlikelihood of there being further prosecutions or sufficient evidence to conclusively provide a complete account of how a loved one died, a compensation payment could provide some consolation and official recognition of the loss suffered.

Given the demonstrable inadequacy of previous efforts to remedy bereaved victims’ suffering, we recommend the establishment of a bereavement payment scheme. Although this scheme will likely cost £90 million to £250 million in awards alone, this is around the same as was budgeted for the institutions proposed by the Legacy Bill, only in that case the money will go to staff and lawyers, not victims. We do not propose the bereavement payment scheme as a means to pay off victims, but rather as a way to ensure that all those who suffered receive some individual acknowledgement and remedy, which the proposed Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) is unlikely to deliver. A single payment of either £20,000, or £75,000 or a fixed-term pension amounting to £50,000 to the closest relative(s) could be appropriate. It would be up to the payment body to determine the appropriateness of paying this amount to all eligible victims. We outline four options of apportionment: a fixed sum for all those killed and split between victims in one or more categories of eligible next of kin (for instance spouse/partner and children); an equal split sum for those in the same category (spouse/partner/child/parent/sibling); a baseline sum that allows multiple claimants; or a graded approach wherein each category has a fixed amount of compensation. Consideration should be given to offer those eligible a choice between seeking a lump sum or a monthly pension. To guarantee its delivery, compensation should have a statutory footing, either in the form of a new payments body or by an amendment to the Victims’ Payment Regulations, as the assessment process required is likely to be considerable and too great for the Victims and Survivors Service to undertake. It is also worth exploring through consultation with victims and survivors whether other forms of reparations, such as a letter of acknowledgment, should accompany a compensation payment, and the role any future legacy body should play in their delivery.

Arts & Humanities Research Council
Queens University Belfast