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QC attacks ‘secret negotiations’ over victims body posts

Stormont ministers will be rendered immune to legal challenges over their decisions — if the controversial appointment of four victims commissioners is upheld.

Lawyers have claimed Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness stone-walled all attempts to “pierce the veil of secrecy” which allegedly surrounded the appointments.

Michelle Williamson is appealing a ruling that former First Minister Paisley and current Deputy First Minister McGuinness broke no law by appointing multiple commissioners.

But legal representatives of Ms Williamson, whose parents were murdered in a 1993 IRA bomb attack on Belfast's Shankill Road, told the Court of Appeal there was no legal authority to bring four people into the role.

It was originally planned to have a single commissioner on a £65,000-a-year salary to represent those bereaved during 35 years of conflict in Northern Ireland — but in January 2008 four victims’ commissioners were announced.

Challenging the High Court dismissal of Ms Williamson's judicial review application yesterday, Barry Macdonald QC gave two reasons why the case was so important.

He said it concerned the protection of victims' interests, and how the First and Deputy First Ministers exercise joint authority.

Mr Macdonald claimed no consultation took place before four commissioners were appointed and that the decision-making process had “all the hallmarks of secret negotiations which were designed to stay secret”.

According to the barrister, officials were excluded from private meetings and notes not taken.

“The upshot is no paper trail, no documentary evidence of how they assessed the candidates for this post, whether they assessed the candidates, and how they arrived at their decisions,” Mr Macdonald said.

The barrister added: “They have effectively stone-walled the court and the applicant all in the hope, which has so far proved well-founded, that they will render themselves immune from judicial review.”

He said: “The longer-term consequence of this decision, if it were allowed to stand, is it would effectively grant the green light to the Executive, and particularly the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, to make decisions behind closed doors, to keep no record or minute or any record of those decisions, and then simply deny all wrong-doing if the matter is questioned in court so they do confer upon themselves effectively an immunity from judicial review.”

The appeal continues.

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