Mixed emotions as Troubles survivors win 13-year pension battle

Thousands of people badly injured in North’s violence can now apply for scheme

Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher, who was paralysed in a loyalist gun attack in Belfast in 1975

Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher, who was paralysed in a loyalist gun attack in Belfast in 1975

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Seconds before she was shot and left paralysed in a random shooting by loyalists in Belfast in 1975, Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher thought for a moment that she was caught up in a film about the American Mafia.

Just eight days after her 18th birthday, Hannon-Fletcher was on a first date, walking home from the cinema along the Grosvenor Road in west Belfast in October 1975.

“We had been to see The Godfather Part II. We were walking along and I saw this car wind down its windows and point guns out. I thought, I am imagining this; this is just from the film,” she remembered.

“I said, ‘I think they are going to shoot us.’” Her boyfriend pushed her to the ground and lay on top of her to save her life. “I just heard this like explosion. And when it stopped I tried to get up but couldn’t. He said, ‘Lie down and pretend you’re dead.’ And I realised they were still shooting at us.

“I was lying there thinking this guy is going to be dead on top of me when this is all over. It was a nightmare. I did not realise anything was wrong with me.”

Soon, a British Army foot patrol arrived. “And this young soldier, who wouldn’t have been much older than me, looked down and said, ‘Oh great, another Fenian gone’.” She shakes her head, in disbelief.

Hannon-Fletcher, a bio-medical scientist, is recounting her story in the memorial garden of the Wave trauma centre in North Belfast, along with about a dozen friends left with terrible injuries from the Troubles.

They were there to mark the fact that finally a pension scheme for such victims and survivors went on-stream for applications last Tuesday. For all, it was a day of mixed emotions.

There was satisfaction that a 13-year fight had been won; but sadness, too, that so many had not lived to see its success. Depending on their injuries, they will get annual pensions ranging from £2,000 to £10,000.

Some were paralysed, blinded or had lost limbs. All suffer constant or regular pain. Some wear morphine patches. Most have had innumerable operations. There are thousands more like them.

However, there was no self-pity, but there was black humour, with one recalling how they once delayed a London-bound flight with their wheelchairs and other paraphernalia when they travelled to meet Westminster politicians.

Wave co-ordinator Alan McBride told security that he was bringing a basketball team to London.

McBride himself will not be applying for the pension although it would be perfectly in order for him to do so. His wife Sharon and father-in-law were killed in the 1993 IRA Shankill bombing in which 10 people were killed – including one of the bombers, Thomas Begley.

The tight bond between all of the group was evident. McBride spoke from a lectern made by one of the victims, Robert Barfoot, from Desertmartin in Co Derry, and his son Cameron.

John Wayne

It bears the Wave logo, a lighthouse shining out its beacon of hope, and a quote from John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.”

Pictures on a table close by partly explained the emotions, since it held framed photographs of other campaigners who had died before the battle was won.

Pointing to the pictures, McBride said: “That’s Hugh Rowan, he was very badly disabled in a shooting; and that’s Paddy Cassidy, he also was shot and very seriously injured; Raymond Trimble used to work for the News Letter and was very badly injured in a bomb at the newspaper; Mabel Hempton, she was shot outside Armagh prison where she worked; and this is Eugene Morrissey, he was disabled and deafened in a bomb and a shooting – all of these were in the 1970s.

“They started the campaign, they were part of the campaign, and very tragically they just didn’t make it.”

The campaign ran for 13 years. One of the reasons why it took so long was because of rows, particularly between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, over what constituted a victim.

Sinn Féin wanted money paid to all those seriously injured, including those injured by their own bombs. This could have meant, for instance, that Sean Kelly, who survived planting the Shankill bomb, would have got a pension.

Eventually, it was resolved that those who suffered an injury at their own hand would not qualify, though a pensions board can make some exceptions to this rule.

There was also an unseemly dispute over who should pay for it – the British government or the Northern Executive, since the pensions could cost more than £1 billion for several thousand people.

The scheme will be retrospective going back seven years, which means that those entitled to the highest annual payments of £10,000 should receive lump sums of £70,000.

Hannon-Fletcher was paralysed from the waist down as a result of her injuries. Her former boyfriend was not seriously physically injured but, she said, suffered long-term psychological trauma.

Successful career

Now married with a grown-up daughter, she followed the John Wayne dictum displayed in the Wave lectern and got back in the saddle to complete her studies and have a successful career.

The payment will help with things she cannot do such as cleaning and – formerly a favourite pastime – gardening.

Robert Barfoot was 22 when he was shot in an IRA ambush in 1985. He was out with a long-standing friend, a part-time RUC reservist, travelling to Portstewart in Co Derry, “a Mecca for women”.

They had just split up with their girlfriends. He drove his friend’s car as the reservist was “knackered” from two nights on police mobile patrol.

Following an ice cream and a walk along the promenade and chatting to friends they returned to Magherafelt and then to his friend’s house nearby. By now, his friend was driving and told him that there had been intelligence about a possible IRA attack in the area. Minutes later, the car was riddled with automatic fire.

“The car was hit by 38 bullets. I was hit with eight of those and my friend was hit with two. He walked from the car and I was taken out of the back window on a body board.”

Barfoot also was paralysed from the waist down. A carpenter, he was to take over the family farm but his injuries put paid to that plan. His father had health problems so the land was rented, or sold.

Now married with three children, he was unable continue as a joiner, but keeps his hand in as a hobby. His 18-year-old son Cameron, who helped him make the lectern, is now an apprentice joiner.

Like Hannon-Fletcher’s former boyfriend, his friend was broken by the experience. “I lost my mobility and I also lost my friend. He lives with the mental torture that I am in the [wheel]chair where he feels he should have been. It is difficult for him.”

Barfoot’s faith helps in bad times. “My Christian faith was my crutch to bring me through. Had I not been a born-again believer, a born-again Christian, I would have been in a padded cell in a mental asylum.”

They are all hugely thankful to McBride, to Wave chief executive Sandra Peake, to Dennis Godfrey, a former Northern Ireland Office communications chief, and to former Northern secretary Peter Hain, who lobbies assiduously for the victims and survivors at Westminster, and helped nail down the pension.

The physical and mental pain is still there for the victims. But while the pension won’t “bring them on holidays to Bermuda” it will help, they said, in making life that little bit more manageable.

In the Wave memorial garden on Tuesday, Barfoot noted the differences between them all. “We are from different backgrounds. It has been very much an up and down journey but the basic thing is never has orange and green come into it.”

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