Sort out the funding for Troubles inquests, demands Lord Chief Justice
Northern Ireland's most senior judge has called on political leaders to agree on funding to get urgent progress on inquests from the Troubles.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said delays to the backlog of cases were hugely disappointing and could mean further devastation for grieving families.
The judge told the opening of the region's new law term that if a deal was not done it could be decades before all the outstanding cases would be completed - a breach of legal requirements to have them heard in a reasonable time.
Sir Declan noted that the NI Department of Justice has not revealed yet the full cost of dealing with the past.
"Disappointingly, however, it now appears that a political resolution will be required on an overall legacy package before the resources required for legacy inquests will be released," he said.
"It is impossible to see how the issue of legacy can be moved forward politically without progress having been made on the new legislation and in the absence of a clear assessment of the costs involved in implementing all of the elements of a legacy package.
"The overall picture is, therefore, hugely disappointing."
Dozens of the most highly disputed cases from the Troubles are awaiting inquests, decades after the killings took place.
They span allegations of security force misinformation to frame the IRA for bombings, state collusion in loyalist murders, inept police investigations and IRA men shot dead by the army as part of a claimed policy of shooting to kill in which civilians died in the crossfire.
Sir Declan has proposed a dedicated unit to hear cases over the next five years but that is dependent on getting the funds from Government.
In his address in Belfast, the Lord Chief Justice warned that coroners would only have resources to complete two more inquests this financial year and he called on ministers in the Stormont Executive and Westminster to act.
"The coroner's courts will not be able to satisfy their legal obligation to deliver these inquests within a reasonable timeframe in the absence of the necessary resources," he said.
"I do not want us to remain in that position since that would be yet another devastating blow to the families.
"The judiciary will be facing up to its responsibilities but this is not a matter on which the judiciary alone can deliver.
"I therefore call again on the local Executive and legislature, and on the UK Government, to play their part as a matter of urgency. We cannot move on while we remain under the shadow of the past. Nor should we. But time is not on our side."
Victims' campaigners said there were 57 legacy inquests involving almost 100 killings.
Mark Thompson, director of Relatives for Justice (RFJ), which supports 40 families, accused the Secretary of State's office of playing politics with the issue by seeking agreement from the Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.
"This is a reserved matter for the sovereign government not the devolved administration," Mr Thompson said.
"The time has come for politicking by the Northern Ireland Office and London on this matter to cease.
"Families have faced decades of deliberate delay, exacerbating their trauma, as well as denying their rights as victims, and it is unacceptable that the NIO continue to delay."
The Pat Finucane Centre said politicians who are causing delays in the hearing of inquests "should hang their head in shame".
A spokesman said: "We share with him (the Lord Chief Justice) a belief, however, that there still remains a window of opportunity for the politicians to move forward and this chance must not be squandered.
"We join him in calling on the Stormont Executive, the new Northern Secretary of State (James Brokenshire) and parliament in London to seize this moment."
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said he shared the Lord Chief Justice's frustrations.
"There is also deep frustration and anger among relatives, some of whom have waited more than four decades to find out exactly what happened to their loved ones," he said.
Mr Kelly added that Sinn Fein fully supported the five-year plan to clear the backlog.
"It is the British government who is holding it up by withholding funding and in doing so they are adding to the pain and distress felt by relatives," he said.
John Teggart, whose father Danny was among 11 people killed in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast over three days in August 1971, awaits a full inquest.
"This is very disappointing news. We lost two of our main eyewitnesses and campaigners Mary Murphy and Joseph Corr in recent weeks," he said.
"When will we have our day in court? We have been campaigning 45 years for the truth and according to this statement from the Lord Chief Justice it could take decades without proper funding to finalise our inquests."
Briege Voyle, whose mother Joan Connolly was killed, called on local politicians to stop making excuses and "take their sectarian hats off".
"We all have the same pain losing a loved one," she said.
Amnesty International's programme director in Northern Ireland welcomed the senior judge's remarks.
Patrick Corrigan said: "Bereaved family members have already been made to wait decades for a proper investigation into the deaths of their loved ones. For politicians to continue to deny the prospect of an inquest, after decades of delay and denial of justice, will only add to the victims' sense of betrayal."