The injured: forgotten casualties of the Troubles
A victim who lost her legs in the 1972 bombing of the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast has told how she is forced to live on benefits and charity
British soldiers help the injured at the Thiepval British Army Headquarters, Lisburn, following two bomb explosions in 1996. Photograph: Reuters
Jennifer McNern was 21 when she went with her sister, Rosaleen into Belfast for an afternoon’s shopping in March 1972, finishing with coffee in the Abercorn Restaurant. Then the bomb exploded. She woke up a week later, missing both her legs.
“Fourteen limbs were amputated that day, two girls were dead,” said McNern yesterday, in a committee room in the Houses of Parliament down the corridor from where Charles Stuart Parnell was forced to stand down as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
“There weren’t many restaurants in Belfast then,” she said, sitting alongside other victim, Margaret Yeaman, who was blinded. “We had to queue to get in. The bomb went off just as we were about to leave,” she remembered.
Today, those who were injured, but who lived are the Trouble’s forgotten people, she believes – forced to live a life on benefits and charity from social services, rather than being able to receive services as a right. Her sister lost two legs, along with an arm.
“The impact on our family was devastating. My mother had three other children, she was a widow. The brothers were teenagers. It was quite difficult then for boys.
“She was particularly worried about them and made sure that one of them went to London,” she went on quietly,
Today, McNern is once again afraid – afraid that dissident republicans are edging ever closer to setting off an Abercorn- style street bomb in Belfast, or somewhere else in Northern Ireland.
She was one of a number to speak at an event in London yesterday to mark the publication of Amnesty International’s report on the need for Northern Ireland – but not just Northern Ireland – to come to terms with the legacy left by the Troubles.
Amnesty says the British government has not made dealing with the past a priority, while “some former protagonists” appear “to see little to gain from confronting the abuses that were committed by all sides – including, of course, their own,” it went on.
However, the past has left a bitter after-taste. Six weeks into the job, Labour’s new Northern Ireland spokesman, Ivan Lewis said: “One of the things that has struck me is that outsiders just don’t get the sheer scale of the impact upon people.
“I don’t think people have a clue about the depth of the trauma, or the number affected,” said Lewis, who published Labour’s own contribution to the work currently being led by former US diplomat Richard Haass.
The Historical Enquiries Team should be expanded, better funded and given more powers, and the Irish and British governments – who were “full participants” in the Troubles – “it will require contributions from both”.
Normally, politicians, he said, talk about the future and the need for change. “But, actually, Northern Ireland is different. Unless you deal with the past and you get that combination of truth and justice there will always be a block to the future”.
Each side has its sins to bear, but former Northern Ireland police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan holds out little hope that Haass will find a route through a landscape where others have feared, or refused to tread.
“I don’t think we can look to Haass to come with the solution. The solution has to come from within Northern Ireland. I don’t have that much faith that anything will come out of Haass. I don’t see the engagement by the parties.”
McNern’s concerns about dissidents are justified, O’Loan believes, though she raised doubts about MI5’s decision to hire some of the same people who handled agents and informers in the days when collusion was rife.
“We can’t be sure that the processes that are being adopted now are not very similar to the processes that were adopted in the past,” said O’Loan. In the past, arms were brought in for agents, or “they were paid loads of money.
“I wouldn’t like to think that this is happening today,” she said. “Politicians need to pay attention to Northern Ireland. However, mention of it in London provokes comments such as, ‘Yes, it was terrible, but it was in the past’. It isn’t.”