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Brokenshire must do more than go to GAA match to give victims a level playing field

The Secretary of State's inaction over legacy issues is a sop to the DUP and a stain on his record, says Alban Maginness

The Conservative Secretary of State James Brokenshire will need to do more than attend a Dr McKenna Cup GAA football final in Newry if he is to restore any sense of political balance in his tenure here.

There is a clear intention on his part to be seen as a firmly pro-DUP Secretary of State. If he does not make some effort to be a neutral British Government representative, then he will find himself hopelessly entrapped in the mess himself.

It is scarcely surprising that the collapse of Stormont happened on his watch and he cannot not regard himself as blameless in that regard.

Stoking DUP paranoia and feeding the erroneous view that dealing with the past is "disproportionately focused on the police and the Army" is very foolish indeed.

The actions of the Army and the RUC will necessarily be integral to the process of investigating the past. This is as unavoidable, as will be the investigation of the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitary actions.

Those in the Army who have allegedly committed crimes will be tried and, if found guilty, will be properly sentenced for those offences.

That is called "due process" and no soldier or police officer can be immune from that, in the same way as no IRA man or UVF man can be immune from justice.

During inter-party discussions on legacy issues there was a political consensus that there could be no amnesty for Troubles-related crimes.

If, as is suspected, Brokenshire is attempting to propose a form of immunity for the security forces, then he will have to concede an amnesty for all paramilitary groups as well. One can predict the justified anger over such a counterproductive proposal.

The main purpose of the legacy process is to provide as full disclosure as possible for the long-suffering families of the victims of the Troubles and to give them some closure.

Brokenshire, by playing political footsie with the DUP, is frustrating the achievement of a formal structure for a legacy process, in particular the funding of Troubles-related inquests and ultimate relief for victims' families.

In an unusually candid manner last week, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, in an address to the Victims and Survivors Forum in Belfast, made it abundantly clear that dealing with Troubles-related inquests by Government was a legal obligation - not simply a matter of Government policy. He went further and said that failure to do so could frustrate the rule of law.

He insisted that the Executive and the British Government need to address the issue urgently. He has already devised a plan with his judicial colleagues to hear all 56 inquests over a period of five years. He also rejected any suggestion that he was seeking special treatment for those cases.

The Lord Chief Justice bluntly stated: "I don't see why wider political agreement should not be addressed now. All the victims and survivors need this issue to be grasped."

Brokenshire has been aware of this legal obligation since his appointment to office eight months ago. He has, therefore, known for a considerable amount of time what is needed to be done and has failed to take action - despite the paralysis of the Executive.

The suspicion is that he has done nothing in order to appease the DUP, whose support might be required in a future tight vote in parliament.

For him, the legal obligation of the British Government to victims of the Troubles is something that can be delayed until the time is deemed opportune. This is a disgraceful and unprincipled evasion of responsibility to the rule of law here by the British Government.

The British Government, in the absence of agreement by the Executive here, could - and should - have unilaterally taken the decision to provide funding for the legacy inquests as outlined by the Lord Chief Justice. It has outrageously failed to do so.

Under international law the British Government, as a member state of the European Convention on Human Rights, has a legal obligation under Article 2 (the Right to Life) and, therefore, has an overriding primary duty to act. Its continuing failure to take action on inquests is, therefore, a clear breach of that legal duty.

Brokenshire claims that legacy inquests should be part of a wider political agreement on how to deal with the past. He has said that a planned consultation on the issue will not now take place until he has broad political consensus.

This unduly delays further progress and hands over to the DUP another contentious veto in this area.

Victims' Commissioner Judith Thompson has said there is a window of opportunity now and we should not miss it.

She is absolutely right.

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