Victims’ campaigner Kenny Donaldson visits Vita House with message on ‘moving through pain’

“The soil’s a great equaliser. Very often for men, talking is culturally not the done thing as it’s seen as a weakness; not macho, and those who take part in our allotments project wouldn’t normally present on a one-to-one basis…”

Being an innocent victim of a violent act or acts can leave an individual with all manner of emotional and physical challenges, many of which can serve to be wounding reminders that someone has caused them harm.

In the aftermath of such trauma, these challenges can be exacerbated by the fact that survivors, in their bid to positively progress forward, may very often need to seek solace, support and assistance when dealing with any lingering issues. This assistance often comes in the form of a trusted advocate, i.e. an understanding, patient, knowledgeable and compassionate individual who can provide independent advice and advocacy specific to the survivor’s own particular set of circumstances.

Victims’ campaigner Kenny Donaldson is one such individual. Awarded an MBE (member of the order of the British empire), an award of chivalry, Kenny’s receiving recognition for his relentless services to grieving families, delivered through his South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) charity which supports those impacted by terrorism resulting from ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

We caught up with Kenny when he was invited to deliver a talk to a men’s group who meet at Roscommon’s Vita House, a community agency who work with individuals experiencing vulnerabilities in their lives, to chat about his SEFF’s Community Allotment initiative which provides “therapeutic and health-based benefits” for service users.

We all recognise that loneliness and isolation has proved to be a worrying issue for many living in rural Ireland, most especially so during the pandemic. However, given recent findings from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing which suggests ‘women who live alone are better than men who live alone at maintaining social contacts’, it’s clear how a community initiative such as the SEFF’s allotments project would be of interest to the Vita House-based men’s group.

The project’s concept, which centres on ‘the community growing together’ was developed in 2010 in collaboration with a number of ‘army veterans’ within the SEFF’s membership. As the initiative’s main focus is centred upon ‘the innocent’ victims and survivors of ‘The Troubles’, CEO Kenny, his staff and volunteers proudly operate on an ethos which ensures there is “no distinction made on the basis of someone’s religious or ethnic background”.

Growing up in the border village of Crossmaglen, an area often referred to as ‘bandit country’, the MBE awardee quickly points out “there’s no political aspiration that justifies violence. The vast majority of people living in Crossmaglen are really good people and it’s a very beautiful place”.

Despite being a spokesperson for Innocent Victims United (IVU), an umbrella body for 23 victims’ groups representing victims and survivors of terrorism and ‘other Trouble-related violence across Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Europe’, Kenny himself was not directly impacted as a result of ‘The Troubles’.

However, he did once witness an atrocity. “My Dad and I were in close proximity to a soldier who was murdered in Crossmaglen in 1993. He was actually the last soldier to be murdered there”.

Indeed, when ‘The Troubles’ were at their peak, Kenny says he “saw the violence all around me”, and now believes ever since the 1998 Belfast Agreement was signed, “the victims and survivors are being asked to carry the can for what has happened”.

It’s for that reason, and the fact these victims and survivors will react differently and recover differently to trauma, Kenny believes this allotments project has “brought together and provided both single and older males (from all creeds, cultures and backgrounds), with a space to talk”.

He adds: “The soil’s a great equaliser. Very often for men, talking is culturally not the done thing as it’s seen as a weakness; not macho, and those who take part in our allotments project wouldn’t normally present on a one-to-one basis (for help); however, they are happy to chat to each other. When you’ve got your hands in raw earth, trying to grow something, it’s a great equaliser”.

When mentioning his MBE award, Kenny becomes embarrassed, saying he was “shocked and deeply humbled” upon being notified he was being recognised in the New Year’s Honours list.

“I don’t know why anyone would have put me forward, (but) I’d like to say thank you to them. I feel fortunate to work with a committed team of thirty-two staff, service providers and volunteers. I’ve been doing this fourteen years, and while it’s a thirty seven and a half hour week, you can often put in eighty hours; so you don’t really sign off”.

With that in mind, Kenny Donaldson, champion of so many who share their “most painful and intimate” feelings, has pledged he’s accepting the MBE, not for himself, but for those he describes as “the innocent victims and survivors of terrorism and other Troubles-related violence”.