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Appointment of Eibhlin Glenholmes to new forum for victims in Northern Ireland defended

APPOINTING a woman once dubbed Britain's "most wanted" IRA suspect to a new forum for victims in Northern Ireland was necessary to reflect the varied experiences from decades of conflict, it has been claimed.

Unionists have hit out at the appointment of Eibhlin Glenholmes, who at the height of the Troubles was the focus of failed extradition proceedings in Dublin as British authorities sought to question her over a string of IRA attacks in England.

But Bertha McDougall, a victims commissioner who helped appoint the 25-member Forum for Victims and Survivors, said it was necessary to reflect as wide a range of perspectives as possible and appealed for critics to await details of the group's full make-up.

Mrs McDougall, whose husband was a police officer killed by republicans in 1981, said compiling a group that reflected the broad experiences and trauma of the years of violence was a complex task.

"It is about making sure that there is a range of experiences of the conflict," she said.

"That is where we are coming from."

She added: "I think that people need to be fully aware of all of the membership."

In the mid-1980s, Ms Glenholmes was at the centre of a high-profile extradition battle and was eventually freed by the authorities in Dublin after a court ruled the warrants defective.

She was never convicted of any terrorist charges and re-emerged in the 1990s in a prominent role in Sinn Fein as the peace process developed.

She was supportive of the moves to end the Troubles, working with a group assisting former republican prisoners.

But unionists have now questioned her appointment to the Forum for Victims and Survivors, claiming the move could deter the victims of republican violence from seeking help.

Mrs McDougall, one of three victims commissioners appointed by the Northern Ireland authorities to oversee provisions for the victims of the Troubles, urged those with concerns to wait and see the full membership of the new forum which will be revealed before its first meeting later this month.

She said: "If anyone is concerned, they can contact the Victims and Survivors Service.

"I think when people look at the forum as a whole, they will, I hope, see people who have comparable experience to their own."

The forum will have 23 members and 2 associate members and will hold its first official meeting in Belfast on June 21, though members of the advisory body have already held a two-day workshop in Co Donegal.

The group is believed to include former members of the security forces, a woman who lost her legs in a 1972 IRA bombing and a Presbyterian minister.

But Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt questioned the wisdom of appointing such a high-profile figure.

He said: "It may well be that Ms Glenholmes meets the definition of victim under the 2006 Order, but then so might some of the Paratroopers who served on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday.

"How would republicans react if a member of the Parachute Regiment was appointed to the Forum?

"I would say the same thing about that as I do about Ms Glenholmes."

He added: "What added value does she bring, compared to the number of innocent victims who will be put off by her presence.

"I am not arguing there is no place at the table for republicans, or even republican ex-prisoners who meet the definition of victim.

"I am simply questioning the impact of high-profile characters.

"It clearly distracts from the vital work the Forum needs to undertake, but if it also deters innocent victims from engaging with the Forum and Commission, it is clearly a mistake."

Jim Allister, a hardline Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said: "I'm utterly disgusted.

"It's a monstrous appointment.

"It is a gross insult to the innocent victims."