Belfast Telegraph

Ford faces legacy probes legal bid

Northern Ireland's Justice Minister is facing a legal challenge from a Troubles victim's family over an alleged failure to fund historical Police Ombudsman's investigations.

Colm Benstead, whose brother Patrick was tortured and murdered by a UDA gang more than 40 years ago, is seeking a judicial review of the decision to slash the budget for legacy probes.

He claims the minister, David Ford, has failed to sufficiently resource the independent watchdog which could have established if his brother's killing was preventable; if it was linked to other murders and whether there was collusion between the army's military force reaction unit (MRU), the police and the loyalist killers.

Solicitor Kevin Winters, representing Mr Benstead, said: "This challenge by the family of Patrick Benstead at this time is an important marker demonstrating that the victims of the conflict continue to seek justice, truth and accountability for all the crimes committed during this period of our shared history, and in Patrick Benstead's instance - an horrific death - where there is a strong allegation of collusion by state agents which requires exposure."

Patrick Benstead, 32, who had a learning difficulty, suffered one of the most gruesome deaths of Northern Ireland's bloody 30-year conflict.

From the Short Strand area of east Belfast, he was abducted in the west of the city and taken to a loyalist drinking den where he was savagely beaten, tortured and then shot on December 2, 1972.

His murder was among 22 carried out by a notorious UDA unit during 1972 and 1973 - eight of which became known as the "Romper Room" killings that sent shockwaves throughout the battle-hardened region.

Last September, the Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire revealed his budget had been reduced by about £750,000.

As a result, 10 people investigating allegations of historical police misconduct lost their jobs and a number of high-profile cases including the IRA murder of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmills in 1976 and the deaths of 12 people in the La Mon House Hotel bombing were postponed.

The budget crisis which engulfed the power-sharing Stormont Executive also led to the axing of the Historical Enquiries Team - a specialist unit within the PSNI that was established to re-investigate unsolved Troubles killings.

Mr Benstead, who is going to Belfast High Court this week, fears the financial restraints imposed on the ombudsman's office mean a complaint he lodged in 2006 may not be looked at for another 12 years.

The case is the latest in a deluge of legal actions being brought against the Government, the chief constable and the Ministry of Defence since it was announced that historic investigations were being scaled back.

Imposing the cuts last Autumn, Mr Ford insisted the need to keep people safe in the present day had to take priority over the obligation to investigate historic crime.

Meanwhile, under the Stormont House Agreement which was reached on December 23 after 11 weeks of negotiations it was announced that a new mechanism, supported by £150 million from the Government, would be set up to investigate Troubles killings.

However, Mr Winters, a human-rights lawyer, said more clarity was needed.

He added: "The recent Stormont House Agreement is too vague a document and with too an uncertain timeline for implementation, and resourcing that structural change is needed now in how we as a society confront and account for the past."

Ms Villiers said the Government had agreed to contribute £150 million over five years to help fund structures dealing with the past, meaning that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) can devote its efforts to policing the present.

These include an oral history archive, a new historical investigations unit to consider deaths due to the Troubles, and the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval established by the UK and Irish governments.

Ms Villiers told MPs: "All of these bodies are required to operate in a fair, balanced, proportionate, transparent and accountable way, preventing any group or strand of opinion from being able to subvert the process or re-write history.

"The new system puts the needs of victims and survivors centre-stage and has reconciliation as a key goal.

"Consensus on how to deal with Northern Ireland's past has eluded successive governments since the Belfast Agreement was signed 17 years ago, so the significance of what has been achieved should not be underestimated."

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