A pensioner whose 17-month-old son was killed in an IRA bomb on the Shankill Road in Belfast has resigned from the Victims and Survivors Forum after discovering that a man he befriended on the body was a convicted bomber from the terror group.
Jackie Nichol, 79, who now lives in Carrickfergus, said he had become quite friendly with Robert McClenaghan, 60, who was appointed to the forum in 2017 because his grandfather Philip Garry was killed in the UVF McGurk’s Bar bombing in 1971.
Mr Nichol’s 17-month-old-son, Colin, was killed in a no-warning IRA bomb later that same month.
The Victims & Survivors Forum is a statutory body intended to give a voice for victims of the Troubles. But Mr Nichol said he was devastated when someone recently showed him a documentary featuring Mr McClenaghan. The production shows the convicted bomber saying he was “immensely proud” to join the IRA and how it was his daily job to plant bombs across Belfast city centre.
The victims forum profile of Mr McClenaghan says that “for the past 25 years Robert has campaigned to establish what happened that night [his grandfather was killed at McGurk’s Bar] and hopes that others can learn from his experience of seeking acknowledgment, truth and justice, if they wish.”
It also explained his motivation for joining the panel: “By joining the forum, I want to share my knowledge and experience and to be an agent for positive change on the forum, by building consensus. I have been a campaigner with the McGurk’s Bar families for 25 years and during that time I have acquired a range of skills that I hope will benefit others.”
The profile adds: “Robert hopes that as a forum member he and others can reach consensus on how to deal with the past. He also aims to gain a greater understanding of others’ personal journeys”.
Mr McClenaghan added: “I hope that collectively, the forum will have helped achieve the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement proposals as well as adequate services for those who survived the conflict.”
At no point does the profile mention that Mr McClenaghan served 12 years in jail for IRA bomb offences.
Mr Nichol told the News Letter: “About one month ago I was told one of the men on the forum was in the IRA and served 12 years out of a 20-year sentence.
“I can’t describe how I felt. I was furious to tell you the truth.
“In my letter of resignation to the Victims Commissioner Judith Thompson I told her that I had seen a documentary about McClenaghan’s IRA past.
“She said to me that he had admitted that he was on a bombing mission against a chemist when police caught him.
“She said she only found out after he was appointed to the commission.
“I could not sit beside him any longer. I was completely gutted.
“I had become quite friendly with him and had even given him a lift into Belfast on one occasion, yet I really knew nothing about him.”
Mr Nichol asked the commissioner to tell forum members exactly why he had resigned, but he claims she simply told them it had been for personal reasons.
“That really hurt me,” he said.
“There are people on the forum whose loved ones were murdered by the IRA that don’t know anything about McClenaghan.”
He also criticised Ms Thompson’s written response to his resignation letter because it did not address any of the concerns he raised with her.
“Before I went on the forum nobody warned me that I could be sitting next to an IRA man.”
Mr Nichol brought his complaint to TUV leader Jim Allister.
The MLA said: “As we near the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement I cannot think of a better example of the obscenities it has helped create than this case.
“Here we have a decent, honourable man who has suffered horrific loss at the hands of IRA bombers and sought to give of his time and talents to do something for victims only to find that by serving on the forum he was sitting across the table from an IRA bomber who unashamedly states that he placed bombs in Belfast as has daily job.
“The reaction of the commissioner is disgusting and illustrates that as long as we have the current definition of victim the forum, the Commissioner and the Victim and Survivors Service cannot represent the interests of innocent victims.
“You cannot at one and the same time represent victim makers and victims.”
Mr Allister said it was “disgusting” that Mr Nichol was put in this position and that it was “outrageous” that the commissioner did not disclose the fact that McClenaghan is a convicted IRA bomber. “She should immediately resign.”
He added: “There should be no question of a return to Stormont unless Westminster changes the definition of victim so as to exclude victim makers.”
The DUP must give an account as it appointed the commissioner with Sinn Fein in 2015, he added.
However the Victims Commission countered that all forum members are made aware that it is an “inclusive” panel which might require them to engage with individuals “who caused hurt or harm”.
The commission said Mr Nichol’s contributions as a member were “greatly valued and respected”.
Commissioner Judith Thompson’s brief reply to his lengthy resignation letter did not address his concerns because it was “solely to thank and acknowledge these contributions” it added.
All panel members are required to meet the definition of a victim in the 2006 Victims Order (NI) - which makes no distinction between victims and perpetrator - but they are under “no obligation to disclose any other information” other than their religious background.
“All members were made aware of the inclusive nature of the forum... and that the nature of the role may mean engaging with individuals who they may perceive as representative of those who caused hurt or harm.”
The commissioner was not able to share his reasons for resigning with the forum because it was “personal” information, but members have since reiterated “their deep commitment to the role and to the greater good...as a way forward for Northern Ireland” it added.