Britain has introduced a pension scheme for victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, restricting it to people “injured through no fault of their own” in a move that has split Unionists and Republicans only weeks after they revived the region’s government.
The scheme is part of contentious efforts to tackle the legacy of three decades of political violence which largely ended after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
But a shift from a previous law on conflict legacy that did not refer to culpability sparked immediate divisions between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin Irish nationalists, the biggest parties in the newly restored executive that took office in January after three years of deadlock.
Arlene Foster, first minister of the executive and DUP leader, said the pension scheme was a “welcome step forward” for innocent victims and noted “it will not be awarded to victim-makers”. But Sinn Féin, which said the approach was “partisan”, was quick to say that Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister and party vice-president, has raised concerns with Julian Smith, secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the UK government.
More than 3,600 people were killed during the Troubles and thousands more injured. The pension scheme follows a Westminster law passed last July but was first agreed in principle in December 2014 and never actually introduced.
“We have talked about this for long enough. It is time to get it done,” said Mr Smith.
People “severely injured and traumatised” can apply for the pension from May. They can receive payments of between £2,000 and £10,000 per year, backdated to 2014.
The Northern Ireland Office made it clear that the scheme would not apply to former paramilitaries injured because of their own actions or to people who had committed serious criminal offences: “An independent judge-led board will make decisions on whether payments should be made where there is compelling evidence that a payment would not be appropriate,” the department said.
This represents a move from a 2006 law to establish a commissioner for victims and survivors of conflict in which there was no reference to an individual’s culpability.
Mrs Foster said she particularly welcomed the fact that the pension would apply only to people injured through no fault of their own, saying it was “immoral” that the 2006 law “categorised innocent victims alongside the perpetrators of acts of terror”.
But Linda Dillon, a Sinn Féin member of the regional assembly at Stormont outside Belfast, said the pension would create “a hierarchy of victims”. She added: “The British government seems once again to be more intent on imposing its narrative of the conflict on people who deserve this pension.”
The scheme was included in Westminster legislation last summer that extended same-same marriage rights and abortion to Northern Ireland, during a long period of paralysis at Stormont that ended only in January when and DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to restart the devolved government with three smaller parties.
Mr Smith said the Troubles “had a devastating impact on many, and the time has come to implement a victims payments scheme to deliver for those who need it most and for those injured through no fault of their own”.