Victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles are tired of their rights being used as a “bargaining chip” in the push to get a deal at Stormont, a campaigner has said.
A number of groups representing relatives bereaved in different fatal incidents have taken to the streets of Belfast to call for political action in dealing with the region’s troubled past.
Hundreds of people made their way to the city hall, marching together under the banner Time for Truth, with many carrying pictures of their loved ones.
Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill joined other party members including South Down MLA Emma Rogan, whose father Adrian was shot dead in the UVF Loughinisland massacre in Co Down in 1994.
The march was organised before the breakdown of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein earlier this month.
Legacy issues were among those being discussed as politicians worked towards a deal to restore powersharing at Stormont.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, speaking the day after talks collapsed, said the party had secured a commitment from the UK Government to have a public consultation on stalled mechanisms to deal with the Troubles and to release funds needed to finance legacy inquests.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly claimed funding for coroner probes into disputed conflict deaths were agreed during the recent talks, but DUP leader Arlene Foster said it would be “astonishing” if the Government granted funding for legacy inquests without an overall agreement.
You can’t use as a bargaining chip the rights of victimsCampaigner Mark Thompson
The Government said all discussions with Northern Ireland’s parties were in the context of how it would respond if there was a deal.
A spokeswoman added that the Government has set out clear commitments to take forward the Stormont House Agreement legacy institutions, and to support inquest reform.
Mark Thompson, director of Relatives for Justice (RFJ), who attended Sunday’s march, said the British Government “carries the responsibility” of ensuring legacy issues were addressed, and added: “You can’t use as a bargaining chip the rights of victims.”
He said: “It’s disingenuous of the Secretary of State and the UK Government to dangle as a carrot in front of political parties ‘If you guys can get a deal, we will give victims their rights’.
“These rights are obligations and rights that are held under the European Convention and the Human Rights Act.”
He said the weekend demonstration was about more than the sole issue of legacy inquest funding, reiterating a call for action on important elements of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.
A Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to examine unsolved murders is “crucially important” to bereaved families, he said.
He said: “That would look at all the unsolved issues for families right across the community and that will deal with approximately 1,800 to 2,000 cases.
“That’s crucially important. So it’s not just about the legacy inquests people are marching for, families are wanting the implementation of all the mechanisms to deal with the past.”
While organisers of Sunday’s march had urged victims from across the community to attend, Mr Thompson blamed unionist politicians for making the issue of dealing with the past “a very divisive” one at times.
He said: “I think it’s much more difficult for groups and people to just be out publicly around this issue, given that it’s being presented by unionist politicians in one way.”