Funding for Northern Ireland Troubles victims 'on brink of collapse'
The finance system supporting victims of the Troubles is on the brink of collapse, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have been warned.
The scheme, run under Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness' office, is facing an unprecedented increase in demand from survivors and their families - while funding remains static.
Victims' Commissioner Judith Thompson has insisted the existing funding levels are "completely inadequate to cope", but also said that a political breakthrough on dealing with the legacy of the past was within grasp.
At present an annual £13m in allocated to meet the needs of victims and their families - but the number of new claimants coming forward has increased by almost 30% annually for a number of years.
And Mrs Thompson said there may be thousands more who still have to come forward.
"We know that there were about 500,000 people who were injured, bereaved or traumatised during the course of the Troubles," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"If that is the baseline number, we have between 12,000 to 16,000 people benefiting from the scheme at the moment. The vast majority have not come forward to use the scheme.
"So, as it stands, the system is unsustainable, it is going to collapse because it is being overwhelmed. There is only one scheme and we just can't go on spreading the same money among more and more people."
Mrs Thompson said frustration over the failure of politicians to reach a deal on legacy issues - left out of the Fresh Start deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein last autumn - was increasing.
"These are people who were given a fairly derisory level of compensation in the first place. Frankly, it was felt that they would not still be living by now," she said. "And what I hear from victims' groups is: 'Are they just waiting until I die?' As they reach retirement age, for many their benefits will go and they simply do not have the pensions to cover them."
DUP leader Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness of Sinn Fein have already signalled they are considering a new pension for severely physically injured victims.
The commissioner said there were still around 28,000 people in the province suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with a further 48,000 suffering from acute mental health problems.
Mrs Thompson stressed "we are at a tipping point", and political agreement should be reached over the next few months to allow legislation to go forward in the Assembly and Westminster.
But she argued there was now a "sweet spot", which should allow for a final agreement to be achieved, with no election on the horizon and the Brexit controversy beginning to fade - at least until negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the EU are triggered next year.
"I genuinely do believe that we were very close to agreement at the point of the Fresh Start. I have talked to a number of individuals and the blame for failing to agree cannot be put down to any one party," she said.
"I have had people from victims' groups say to me 'they are waiting for us to die', and then they will have gone away as a political problem. But that is not going to happen.
"I could point to any number of people who say that when they go, their son or daughter or granddaughter or brother is going to continue to ask questions and continue the search for truth, so it is not going to go away.
"In some cases there are third generations who still are insisting on a degree of accountability.
"They know it is unlikely anyone is going to be sentenced or imprisoned for what happened to their loved ones, but they want to know what happened."