Unit to speed up process of hearing Troubles inquests given green light
A new unit to speed up the process of hearing inquests into some of the Troubles’ most controversial deaths has been given the green light.
Stormont’s Department of Justice has released £55 million to finance the initiative after years of political stalemate.
In 2016, Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan proposed the beefed-up unit as a way of progressing more than 50 investigations mired in the coronial system for years.
But the proposal became caught up in a wider political dispute about how to deal with the toxic legacy of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
The DUP effectively vetoed the establishment of the £50 million unit pending resolution of a row on the structure of other mechanisms, outlined in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, designed to bring truth and justice to bereaved families.
With many of the legacy inquests touching on killings linked to the state, the DUP argued that pushing ahead with the unit, amid deadlock over other proposals to reinvestigate paramilitary murders, would have resulted in an unbalanced approach.
But last year, Belfast High Court, ruling in a case taken by Troubles widow Brigid Hughes, found that former DUP first minister Arlene Foster had acted unlawfully in blocking a Stormont request for UK Government funds to set up the inquest unit.
A year later and the DoJ, which like other Stormont departments continues to operate in the absence of elected ministers, is pushing ahead with the plan.
It has announced £55 million to fund the initiative over the next six years.
The first tranche of funding has been factored into Stormont’s 2019/20 budget, which was unveiled earlier on Thursday.
There are 52 legacy inquest cases in Northern Ireland, relating to 93 deaths.
The cases are at various stages of the investigation and inquest process.
Peter May, permanent secretary of the Department of Justice, said: “The delays in progressing legacy inquests have been unacceptable to families involved and to the justice system.
“In the Hughes Judicial Review judgment, the court ruled that progress on securing funding for legacy inquests should not be linked with agreement on the overall legacy package but taken forward as a separate issue.
“This initiative takes account of that judgment and will support a significant expansion of capacity to clear the outstanding legacy inquests over the next six years.”
A new Legacy Inquest Unit will be set up within the Coroners Service, under the remit of the Lord Chief Justice.
The money will also ensure the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service and other justice agencies have the added capacity to keep pace with the unit.
Sir Declan welcomed the move.
“Legacy inquests have an impact on bereaved families, those who have served in the police and armed forces, other state agencies; and very often the wider communities in which these deaths occurred,” he said.
“I am pleased that funding is now going to be provided to implement the plan for dealing with legacy inquests which I proposed over three years ago.
“There is clearly a great deal of preparatory work to be done to establish the Legacy Inquest Unit and deliver my plan.”
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said the release of the money was “long overdue”.
“Some families have been waiting almost five decades on a coroner’s inquest, the most basic of investigations into the killings of their loved ones,” she said.
“And it is almost a year since Arlene Foster was found by the courts to have acted unlawfully in blocking the release of this funding.
“Those delays continued to deny the families of victims of the conflict access to truth and justice. That is deplorable and disgraceful.
“It is Sinn Fein’s firm hope that the Lord Chief Justice will now have the resources to clear the backlog in legacy cases on around 100 killings.”