Compassion - that’s what Alex Attwood stressed in that rather stressful encounter with the BBC’s Gareth Gordon yesterday. Alex was feeling more than a little tetchy at the time. He'd come from a meeting with Ann Travers, the woman whose sister was shot dead by the IRA 29 years ago as it attempted to kill her father Tom Travers, a judge. As you probably know, Ann is on a mission, now that Mary McArdle is no longer a special adviser in Stormont, to have anyone who’s served five years or more barred from acting as a special adviser in Stormont. The SDLP has said it will not support a bill to this effect; Ann Travers has said that means they are "putting up two fingers to victims". Hence her meeting to get them to change their minds.
Compassion. Who could not feel compassion for a woman who has clearly suffered deeply since the day and hour that her sister was killed in 1984? However, compassion is one thing and judgement is another. The SDLP has already made a judgement not to support a bill precluding from special adviser office all those who’ve served five years or more. Ann Travers is intent on changing that judgement by drawing on the SDLP’s compassion.
A dangerous mix. It is never wise to allow victims to make decisions about punishment, for the good reason that they are victims. A victim feels the pain of loss and anger against those who have inflicted that loss; a judge is one who can detach him or herself from that pain and make a dispassionate decision on fitting punishment. If Alex Attwood or the SDLP allow Ann Travers to decide what the party’s views on this matter should be, they will have allowed compassion to over-rule judgement.
A final and important point on this. Twice yesterday in her TV interview, Ann Travers declared she was speaking on behalf of all victims, in her pursuit of this matter. She’s wrong. There are literally thousands of people who are victims of the conflict here. Not all of them feel that their pain calls for the barring from office of anyone who has served five years or more. Some of them feel the very opposite. Ann Travers has every right to speak for herself. She has no right to say she speaks for all victims.