Historic UDA murder inquiry may be delayed by 20 years due to Police Ombudsman funding uncertainty
Police Ombudsman is being "starved" of funding, High Court hears
An investigation into one of the most gruesome killings in Northern Ireland's bloody history could be delayed by up to 20 years because the Police Ombudsman is being "starved" of funding, the High Court heard today.
Lawyers for the brother of loyalist murder victim Patrick Benstead claimed Justice Minister David Ford cannot deprive the independent watchdog of sufficient resources amid uncertainty over when a new agency for probing Troubles-related deaths will be set up.
Under the Stormont House Agreement reached by the political parties just before Christmas an historical investigations unit (HIU) is to take responsibility for examining legacy cases.
But Mr Justice Treacy was told the authorities have a continuing obligation to ensure the current investigative mechanisms can look into events surrounding Mr Benstead's torture and murder more than 40 years ago.
The 32-year-old, from the Short Strand area of east Belfast, was abducted and taken to a loyalist drinking den where he was beaten and then shot in December 1972.
His murder was among 22 carried out by a notorious UDA gang - eight of which became known as the 'Romper Room' killings.
Amid suspicions that the loyalists were in collusion with a military unit and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Benstead family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman back in 2006.
But last autumn the current Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, revealed his budget had been reduced by around £750,000.
Mr Benstead's brother, Colm, is now seeking to judicially review the Justice Minister's decision to cut the funding.
His lawyers claim it will deny the right to a prompt investigation to establish whether the killing was preventable, linked to other murders and whether any collusion was involved.
Opening the case today, barrister Stephen McQuitty argued that a current of eight year hold-up could be compounded by a further 12 before the case is fully examined.
"That creates the prospect of delaying an investigation into a murder in 1972 by 20 years," he said.
"The Department (of Justice) may claim they are a victim of funding cuts to their budget and that has a knock-on effect, but that does not absolve the Department of their obligation to provide adequate funding so the statutory obligation of agencies within the Department can be discharged."
Dealing with Stormont House Agreement plans to introduce a new HIU, he insisted: "In the interim the Minister cannot simply shut down the existing structures by starving them of adequate funding in effectively one fell swoop."
Mr McQuitty claimed both the looming General Election and the nature of Northern Irish politics meant there was no certainty the deal reached will "bear fruit".
He added: "It's no excuse to say now 'We will not do anything for a number of years and wait until this new unit takes over'.
"If the respondent is going to plead the Stormont House Agreement as the answer we say at the minute the Stormont House Agreement begs more questions than answers."
But Peter Coll QC, responding for the Minister, contended that the political deal was of crucial importance.
Urging the judge to hold off on granting leave to seek a judicial review at this stage, he said: "It changes the picture manifestly, clearly and very strongly.
"The court should take account of that new political and factual dispensation in saying it's not an appropriate time to grant leave."
Mr Coll described the HIU as "one of the success stories of the political agreement" which will assume responsibility for legacy cases.
In the meantime, however, he contended that the Police Ombudsman will continue with its work rather than "simply downing tools".
The court also heard how the political parties are due to meet again at the end of this month to further map out the Stormont House Agreement.
Adjourning the legal challenge, Mr Justice Treacy said he wanted to wait for the outcome of that meeting before reaching a decision.
Belfast Telegraph Digital