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Theresa Villiers could release some of £150m for Troubles legacy

Published 22/02/2016

Theresa Villiers told the Commons she will take "very seriously" a request to provide cash for inquests if a "credible" reform package is put together
Theresa Villiers told the Commons she will take "very seriously" a request to provide cash for inquests if a "credible" reform package is put together

Theresa Villiers has indicated she is willing to release some of the £150 million earmarked for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

The Northern Ireland Secretary came under pressure from Labour to ensure the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and coroners office receive extra funding to help deal with responsibilities connected to the country's conflict.

Ms Villiers told the Commons she will take "very seriously" a request to provide cash for inquests if a "credible" reform package is put together.

An agreement on how to deal with the past has not been reached despite progress in other areas of policy.

Ms Villiers made the remarks during the second reading of the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill.

The proposed legislation seeks to implement parts of two political deals aimed at protecting Northern Ireland's faltering power-sharing administration.

This includes an Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary activity, changes to ensure Assembly members challenge paramilitary activity and to ensure the amount of UK Government cash required for the Northern Ireland budget is outlined to the Assembly.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker, addressing legacy issues, said victims must be at the heart of any agreements.

He called for an "urgent look" at the resources available to the PSNI and the coroners service to support investigations and speed up inquests, noting: "More and more delay for victims is unacceptable."

Mr Coaker added: "I very much agree with the First Minister and others in Northern Ireland who have pointed out that notwithstanding that agreement has not been reached on how to deal with the legacy issues, the PSNI, the coroners office and others are still required to deal with the consequences of these issues.

"And therefore given that the Secretary of State has put aside money pending any agreement, surely it'd be acceptable to give at least some of this money to those bodies to reflect on the continuing work that they have to do in trying to investigate and resolve some of the difficulties they face.

"I think that's a perfectly reasonable request that the First Minister has made and I'd ask the Secretary of State, I know she's not going to be able to answer that now, but I think it's something the Secretary of State and the minister of state - with the Government - should consider in order to take forward."

Ms Villiers, intervening, replied: " The Fresh Start Agreement does make it clear that the £150 million package to support legacy is linked to the establishment of the new bodies.

"But we're listening carefully to the representations made, particularly in relation to inquests.

"If a credible reform package for inquests is put together then we take very seriously a request to provide some funding to support it."

Mr Coaker welcomed the "helpful" response, adding the implication is Ms Villiers is "open to making money available" both to the PSNI and the coroners service.

He said: "I think that is what victims would expect. They know it's difficult to come to an agreement with respect to how to deal with the past, the proposed institutions are there but the agreement is not yet reached.

"But at the same time work has to be taken forward."

The SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) said he would attempt to amend the Bill to try to properly deal with legacy issues and to end the " piecemeal approach" to helping victims and survivors move on.

Mr McDonnell said the Bill or future moves indicated by Ms Villiers are seen by victims and survivors as the last chance for "meaningful truth or genuine justice" and that many will feel let down by the provisions on the table.

"The big absence of this Bill is of course reference to the legacies of the past and particularly issues pertaining to legacy," he said.

"We have made our views clear on those - the victims, survivors and their needs must be paramount and vague claims about national security preventing disclosure cannot and must not add up.

"There is no degree of honesty or integrity in rolling these out to block every effort to uncover the truth and establish accountability and transparency.

"Northern Ireland society cannot, as some would have it, just move on and forget about the past, abandon the hurt and the needs of victims and survivors.

"The wounds of the past must be healed and the victims and survivors across our society I believe have waited far too long.

"For many of them this Bill, or another Bill if it's coming, we'd like to see it sooner rather than later, is the last real chance for any sort of meaningful truth or genuine justice.

"And it's perfectly understandable that so many of these people feel enormously let down by the shortfalls of not just here in this Bill but in other Bills in the past."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said progress was being made on all aspects of the Stormont House Agreement and welcomed the Bill's fast tracking through Parliament.

He said it was essential that the Bill is passed before the Northern Ireland Assembly is dissolved at the end of March ahead of May's elections.

Mr Dodds said: "I am confident that despite the need to fast track this legislation that we will have the opportunity for adequate consideration.

"And it is important that a number of the measures that are introduced by this Bill are in place so that when the Assembly elections are held and the results come in, that everything is in place for the new term of the Assembly and the new executive to operate under the new legislation without any hiccup or delay or any question mark over it.

"And in particular the provisions in relation to the agreement for a programme for government, extending the period to appoint ministers... the pledge of office and an undertaking for MLAs, those are all absolutely essential that this House deals with those before the Assembly is dissolved at the end of March."

Mr Dodds appeared to welcome measures in the Bill to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive sets sustainable budgets after welfare spending proved a crucial sticking point in the lead up to the agreement.

He said: "I deeply regret that even after the Fresh Start Agreement there were still members of this House and members in the Assembly who were opposing the implementation of the agreement.

"They didn't seem to recognise that without a budget which actually measures up and is sustainable you just cannot continue with devolution.

"I'm glad that there are politicians in Northern Ireland who are prepared to face up to reality, grapple with difficult problems, sit down and through dialogue and agreement come to sensible outcomes."

Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist MP for Lagan Valley, accused Sinn Fein of "re-writing the history of the Troubles".

He told the House: "We know that their game is about pretending against the reality that of all the deaths that occurred in the Troubles, 90% of those killings were carried out by paramilitary organisations, 90% of them.

"Yet if you follow the media coverage, if you read your newspapers, if you look at the amount of money that is spent on investigations and inquests, far more, proportionately far more of that resource and media coverage goes on the 10% of deaths that are attributed to the state.

"Many of them, I have to say, are deaths that were the result of the security forces killing people who were engaging in acts of terrorism, but far more emphasis, far more resource, goes on those deaths than on the 90% of people, innocent victims, murdered by paramilitary organisations."

Mr Donaldson called for progress on the legacy issue and for additional, non-frontline police funding to be made available to make it happen.

He said: "We want to see progress in dealing with the legacy issues. We want to see the historical investigations unit established with full police powers to investigate the unsolved murders."

The Bill also seeks to amend the existing pledge of office taken by ministers so they would have to make a firm commitment to ending paramilitarism.

But a number of MPs questioned the worth of such a pledge.

Tom Elliott, the Ulster Unionist Party MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said he has "major concerns" about how effective it would be.

He said: "If there is a doubt around the pledge or undertaking, if it will make any difference at all, I have to say when some people bombed and murdered in the past I'm not so sure whether taking a pledge of ministerial office or taking an undertaking as assembly members would make much difference to them.

"I think if they could do that in the past I don't think this is going to make a huge amount of difference."

Northern Ireland minister Ben Wallace, a former soldier who served in the country, said it was important to stress paramilitary groups killed innocent people.

He said: "No amount of innuendo and selective leaks and salacious allegations can change that fact. It does not wash away their guilt by trying to move it on.

"This narrative that has been growing is very dangerous to the history of Northern Ireland because the reality is it was those groups who chose to go out on nights and kill people, it was those groups that planted the bombs, and we won't let the alternative narrative be planted - that somehow somebody else caused it and therefore they were not guilty of what they did that day."

The Bill was given an unopposed second reading.

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