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Villiers meets US lawyers in bid to resolve national security veto dispute

Published 17/02/2016

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is on a two day trip to the US
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is on a two day trip to the US

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has met with top US lawyers to try and find a resolution to the ongoing dispute around the national security veto.

The contentious disclosure issue was raised with representatives from New York law firm O'Dwyer and Bernstein during a two-day State-side visit to promote the region.

It is also expected to top the agenda of meetings with senior security figures in Washington later.

Speaking from the US, Ms Villiers said : "I had a discussion with the New York lawyers about how we try and resolve the remaining blockages in the way of getting legislation through to set up the legacy bodies under the Stormont House Agreement.

"A nd, how we provide confidence in relation to how information will be protected, to ensure that everyone is confident that the national security veto would only be exercised where the information really does need to be protected in order to save lives and protect important techniques."

The continuing political row is holding up a £150 million package of measures to address the toxic legacy of the conflict - including the establishment of a new Historical Investigations Unit.

The key logjam relates to the Government's insistence on retaining the right to withhold certain classified files from the public domain.

A number of bereaved families and campaigners want the papers handed over to shine a light on the shadowy world of the security services, amid claims of paramilitary collusion and misuse of agents.

But the Government has insisted the release of certain top-secret documents could compromise national security, potentially benefiting Islamic extremists or dissident republicans.

Controversy also surrounds the extent to which state agencies are co-operating with dozens of long-delayed inquests into deaths linked to alleged security force misconduct and collusion.

Ms Villiers said discussions had centred on appeals mechanisms which would give families an opportunity to challenge any decision not to hand over documents.

The Government believes the final decision should rest with the region's High Court judges while Sinn Fein wants an international panel of judges to be appointed.

Ms Villiers added: "We need to emphasise, this new, independent police unit (HIU) will get everything - all the documents which are relevant to the cases which it is investigating which are held by the police, by the MoD and the Government.

"They will have all of it; not redacted; not flagged up.

"They can see the whole lot and then they can decide whether it is a case where criminal charges are needed and then pass that advice on to the Director of Public Prosecutions - another completely independent office.

"The UK Government is committed fully to disclosure to the HIU but we do have a duty to protect information which, if it was out in the public domain, could lead to loss of life."

Meanwhile, Ms Villiers said the outcome of further discussions on how the US tackles organised crime would be fed back to the new panel tasked with dealing with paramilitary activity.

The purpose of the two-day visit is to brief members of the US Administration and senior figures within the Irish American community on the Fresh Start Agreement and to promote investment.

Ms Villiers said there had been a "warm welcome" for the new deal.

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