Belfast Telegraph

Family of loyalist murder victim fight decision to cut Ombudsman's budget

By Alan Erwin

An investigation into one of the most gruesome killings in Northern Ireland's bloody history could be delayed by up to 20 years because the Police Ombudsman is being "starved" of funding, the High Court heard.

Lawyers for the brother of loyalist murder victim Patrick Benstead claimed Justice Minister David Ford cannot deprive the independent watchdog of sufficient resources amid uncertainty over when a new agency for probing Troubles-related deaths will be set up.

Under the Stormont House Agreement an historical investigations unit (HIU) is to take responsibility for examining legacy cases.

But Mr Justice Treacy was told the authorities have a continuing obligation to ensure the current investigative mechanisms can look into events surrounding Mr Benstead's torture and murder more than 40 years ago.

The 32-year-old, from the Short Strand area of east Belfast, was abducted and taken to a loyalist drinking den where he was beaten and then shot in December 1972.

His murder was among 22 carried out by a notorious UDA gang - eight of which became known as the 'Romper Room' killings.

Amid suspicions that the loyalists were in collusion with a military unit and the RUC, the Benstead family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman back in 2006.

But last autumn the current Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, revealed his budget had been reduced by around £750,000.

Mr Benstead's brother, Colm, is now seeking to judicially review the decision to cut the funding.

His lawyers claim it will deny the right to a prompt investigation to establish whether the killing was preventable, linked to other murders and whether any collusion was involved. Opening the case yesterday, barrister Stephen McQuitty argued that a current eight-year hold-up could be compounded by a further 12 before the case is fully examined.

"That creates the prospect of delaying an investigation into a murder in 1972 by 20 years," he said.

"The department may claim they are a victim of funding cuts to their budget and that has a knock-on effect, but that does not absolve the department of their obligation to provide adequate funding so the statutory obligation of agencies within the department can be discharged."

Dealing with Stormont House Agreement plans to introduce a new HIU, he claimed both the looming general election and the nature of Northern Irish politics meant there was no certainty the deal reached will "bear fruit".

But Peter Coll QC, responding for the minister, contended that the political deal was of crucial importance.

He urged the judge to hold off on granting leave to seek a judicial review at this stage.

The court also heard how the political parties are due to meet again at the end of this month to further map out the Stormont House Agreement.

Adjourning the legal challenge, Mr Justice Treacy said he wanted to wait for the outcome of that meeting.

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