Our government doesn’t care about the victims and survivors of terrorism
The UK Government doesn’t care about victims and survivors of terrorism. Not really. Sure, after every terror attack it makes all the right noises. It has to. It’s what the nation expects. The Prime Minister on the doorstep of No.10. Grave expression. Shock and regret. Thoughts and prayers are with the victims. ‘We stand with them… . We will seek out the perpetrators and bring them to justice.’
It’s the Churchill moment every PM is on standby for. But then the victims are forgotten. Time moves on and political correctness and expediency win out. Ministers spend more time hand-wringing about the rights of the perpetrators rather than any responsibility to the victims. A Nelson eye is turned to countries who finance and sponsor these attacks; cosy diplomacy and the interests of big business are far more important. There are deals to be done and careers to be made. And all this is done on the backs of victims.
This is clearly illustrated by the Government’s treatment of the victims and survivors of the 1982 bombing of Hyde Park by the Provisional IRA. Four soldiers of the Household Cavalry were murdered when the IRA detonated a car-bomb during the Changing of the Guard Procession. Later that day, seven bandsmen from the Royal Green Jackets were murdered in Regent’s Park by the same IRA team. Dozens of other soldiers and civilians were injured and maimed. Seven horses were slaughtered. It was one of the worst terrorist atrocities ever committed on British soil.
Straight from the playbook, Margaret Thatcher told the nation: ‘These callous and cowardly crimes have been committed by evil, brutal men who know nothing of democracy. We shall not rest until they are brought to justice.’ But, rather than there being no rest until the perpetrators were caught, the government has spent at least the last ten years protecting them instead.
The chief suspect for the Hyde Park bomb, John Downey, spent thirty years on the run. Due to the hard work of the police and security forces, he was finally arrested in 2013 and brought to trial. Yet, despite intelligence linking him to five other terrorist attacks, a secretive backroom deal done between the Blair government and the IRA meant he walked free.
So much for not resting until the perpetrators were brought to justice. Instead, it turned out our government had worked to make sure they’d never see the inside of a courtroom. A shameful pact of appeasement. More Chamberlain than Churchill. Who paid the price? Not Blair and his cohorts. They built their legacy trampling on the victims’ backs. All for a future of book deals, public speaking fees and a seat on the board of UK PLC. (It’s no surprise then that HMG also bent over to appease Gaddafi, the man who armed the IRA and, for the sake of securing lucrative business contracts, thousands of UK victims of Libya sponsored IRA attacks have been denied just reparations while US, French and German victims of Libyan terrorism have received millions in compensation. Don’t take our word for it, just read the report of the Parliamentary Inquiry that looked into this under-reported scandal.)
After Downey was released in 2014, our law firm received a call. The families who lost loved ones wanted to know if Downey could be brought back to court. Another criminal trial wasn’t possible, but we had a track record of bringing and winning civil cases against terrorists, as well as their sponsors and financiers. We quickly secured an opinion from one of our country’s most senior barristers. There was a case. We had the evidence. All that was needed was the legal aid to bring it. Given the amount of legal aid given each year to those accused of the most terrible crimes (Downey himself got £50,000) you would have thought this would be straightforward. Instead, the Legal Aid Agency put the families through three years of unnecessary heartache and suffering. The Government could have stepped in at any time but, for the most part, wouldn’t even answer our letters.
From one irrational decision to the next
The first time we applied for legal aid, the LAA told us to approach a Veteran’s Charity instead. This is the equivalent of needing a triple bypass and the NHS telling you to write to the British Heart Foundation. We politely reminded the LAA it was its responsibility, not Help For Heroes, to provide legal aid services.
The second time, the LAA told us it wasn’t sufficiently in the public interest to bring a case against Downey. We took the LAA to court. The judge didn’t think much of a government agency saying there was no real benefit to bringing suspected terrorists to trial. Knowing it would lose, the LAA backed down and promised it would make a new decision. Cruelly, it then refused legal aid a third time. On this occasion, it simply said pursuing Downey wasn’t worth the money. We were seeking just over £300,000 to bring a complex case and a convicted terrorist on-the-run back to court. To put this into perspective, the government spent an estimated £400 million on the Saville Inquiry to establish the truth about what happened and ‘to close [that] painful chapter’ for the families of 13 people shot dead by British soldiers on ‘Bloody Sunday’.
It is unclear what price the LAA puts on justice. The cost of establishing the truth about Bloody Sunday and who was responsible amounted to around £30 million per shooting. The cost of bringing Downey back to trial and establishing the truth of who and what was responsible for the massacre of four British soldiers would be a relatively modest £75,000 per victim. There’s only one conclusion to reach. In the eyes of the government and the LAA, when it comes to justice, the lives of these British soldiers weren’t worth a penny.
We applied for legal aid a fourth time. This time we were refused because the LAA said Downey wouldn’t defend himself; there would be no trial, therefore we didn’t need funding. From experience we knew that would not be the case and that Downey would plead his innocence. The LAA wouldn’t listen. The families had to turn to the generosity of the British public and raised enough from crowdfunding to at least start proceedings against Downey. We travelled to Ireland to serve Downey his papers, knocked on his front-door, only to learn that he had gone to ground. He had left his family home of 20 years after news of the case being brought against hit the front page. Fortunately, we’d planned ahead and already had the court’s permission to serve him by posting an advert in the Irish press. A month later Downey’s defence landed on our desk. He denied any involvement in the bombing. This case was going to trial, but there was no apology from the LAA.
We applied for legal aid a fifth and final time. The LAA asked for a copy of Downey’s defence. He claims that he was a victim of a conspiracy by the police and security services to frame an innocent man. Without any evidence to support this, the LAA took Downey’s side. They’d gone from refusing funding on the basis that Downey would never defend our case, to telling us we should abandon it.
Jumping from one irrational decision to the next, proven wrong time-after-time, the LAA has frustrated justice and wasted time. Any delay to a case is damaging but, thankfully, the evidence against Downey remains strong and the families steadfast. They continued to make representations to the LAA, the Government and anyone who’d listen. Last week, the LAA responded to our last application. No explanation. Legal aid is granted. Downey’s going back to trial.
Perhaps the LAA expects the families’ gratitude? Why should they give it? The LAA should have funded this case years ago. All it’s done is caused them more suffering. As one of the family members said to us: ‘We were made victims three times over. First by the bomb, then by Blair and then by the LAA.’
We don’t know what changed. Perhaps the relentless stream of letters we sent to everyone, from the Minister with responsibility for legal aid (no reply), to the Lord Chancellor (no reply), to the Prime Minister (no reply). Perhaps it was the countless MPs and Peers who voiced their support and asked questions in Parliament (only to be fobbed off). Perhaps the government had become aware the families were scheduled to meet with the Shadow Justice Secretary and feared the opposition would get the jump on them. Or perhaps it’s because, for the second time, we told the LAA we would see them in court and, this time, there’d be no deal.
The LAA’s and the government’s treatment of the Hyde Park families, and its apparent policy of barring victims of terrorism access to justice, would have been on trial instead of Downey. A light may have been shone on why the families had been obstructed and deceived all these years. Perhaps this was something the government just couldn’t afford, and, in the end, it was just less costly to give in.
The families and survivors of Hyde Park don’t want compensation (though, if Downey is ordered to pay any, they’ll take it and have pledged it will go to a veterans’ charity). All they want is justice. Closure. Some hope that their efforts may remind the authorities to look again at the five other terrorist incidents Downey has been linked to and he may still end up in prison. Perhaps they’ll inspire other victims denied justice to come forward and take the fight to the terrorists. You can’t put a price on that and it’s the least the government owes them.
The government must do more than offer victims and survivors tea and sympathy. They need real support, benefits, welfare and effective access to justice. Compared to elsewhere, what they get here is an embarrassment.
The system must be changed to make it easier for victims to bring perpetrators to court through private actions when the state cannot or fails to do so itself – this means making legal aid available. No matter how far they run and how many years have passed, the perpetrators must know and fear that they will one day be held to account.
There must be no state immunity that we still afford state sponsors and financiers of terrorism. The United States did away with this when it enacted the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in 2016; there’s no reason we can’t do the same. Instead, the Government spends its time finding ways to frustrate new legislation that would benefit victims because they’re too concerned about the human rights of state sponsors of terrorism! It’s not enough just to prosecute the foot-soldiers. For each one locked away, there will always be more to take their place.
More important and effective is the targeting of the foreign states and private actors who finance, train and arm their terrorist organisations. More powerful is when this is done by the victims themselves. Without money, training or weapons, the terrorist threat is greatly reduced. If the government truly cares about our victims and survivors of terrorism, it should start with these steps: by making sure there are fewer of them in the future.
This article was first published on February 15, 2018