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Families take legal action over stalled Troubles inquest funding

Published 22/09/2016

Families impacted by inquest delays outside Stormont in Belfast
Families impacted by inquest delays outside Stormont in Belfast

Bereaved relatives impacted by a failure to fund stalled Troubles inquests in Northern Ireland are taking legal action against the Government and Stormont ministers.

Members of more than 30 families, from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds, hand-delivered notice of the challenge to the offices of Secretary of State James Brokenshire at Stormont House in Belfast.

Similar letters were also delivered to the offices of First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and to Stormont's Department of Justice.

Rita Bonner, whose brother John Laverty was shot dead by British soldiers in Ballymurphy, west Belfast in 1971, said the ongoing failure to hold an inquest into his and other deaths was a "total and utter disgrace".

"In any other democratic society we wouldn't be standing here, we shouldn't have to be standing here pleading for our inquest to be opened," she said.

Nichola Baxter, whose cousin Craig McCausland was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 2005, said families were being denied closure.

"I come from a unionist background, we are waiting 11 years for an inquest and therefore a death certificate - simple things that the law says we are entitled to as families," she said.

"We are not getting answers and it's the same for everybody here. At lot of people here are waiting longer than 11 years and it's an absolute disgrace."

The action is being taken in the name of Briege Voyle, whose mother Joan Connolly was also shot by the Army in 1971 in an episode relatives refer to as the Ballymurphy massacre.

It alleges that the authorities are in breach of international human rights laws by their ongoing failure to release £10 million to pay for a new unit to deal with the outstanding legacy cases.

There are around 50 stalled inquests relating to almost 100 deaths. Some of the deaths date back more than 40 years.

The killings span allegations of security force misinformation, state collusion in loyalist murders, inept police investigations and IRA men shot dead by security forces as part of an alleged shoot-to-kill policy.

In February, Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, proposed that a specialist unit be set up that could deal with the cases within five years.

Politicians have so far failed to agree to stump up the £10 million needed to fund the process.

The money will be accessed as part of a Government financial package to deal with a range issues related to Northern Ireland's toxic past. But Mr Brokenshire insists it can only be released if Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness formally request funding for Sir Declan's initiative.

No such request has been made because Democratic Unionist leader Mrs Foster has refused to sign off on the bid.

In the summer the Council of Europe expressed concern at the ongoing delay, while Sir Declan reiterated his calls for politicians to sort out the row in a strongly-worded speech earlier this month.

The families protesting at Stormont were represented by Belfast solicitor Padraig O Muirigh.

He said the Government had an obligation to act, even without agreement at Stormont, as it was the signatory to international human rights laws that require timely investigations into contentious deaths.

"I think the British Government are ignoring a warning from Europe and also the Lord Chief Justice and very clearly they are in breach of their human rights obligations on this issue," he said.

The notified parties have now 14 days to respond to the pre-action letters. If they do not act to address the delays, the action will proceed to court.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said: "Inquests are crucial for the Ballymurphy families, and for the other families who have waited so long for their cases to be heard.

"Reform of the inquest system has been part of the Secretary of State's intensive discussions over recent weeks with victims' and survivors' groups on implementing the Stormont House Agreement legacy institutions and making available £150 million of UK Government money to fund the bodies to deal with the past.

"It is clear that the current system is not equipped to deal with the number and complexity of cases.

"The NI Executive, which has responsibility for inquests in Northern Ireland, is rightly considering how the legacy inquest system can be improved. We will look carefully at their proposals as soon as they are submitted."

A row between the Government and Sinn Fein is blocking progress on other aspects of the wider package of mechanisms aimed at dealing with the past, specifically a new historical investigations unit.

A spokesman for the DUP said all outstanding issues had to be addressed before Government funding would be drawn down.

"Funding for legacy issues, including inquests, was secured on the condition of wider agreement on new institutions on the past," he said.

"That agreement has not yet been reached, but the dispute lies between republicans and HM Government."

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