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Northern Ireland legacy unit 'could clear cases in five years'

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice has set out a five-year timeframe for dealing with controversial inquests which have remained logjammed for years.

He also called for the establishment of a dedicated Legacy Inquest Unit under Mr Justice Colton, who was recently appointed as Presiding Coroner.

Sir Declan Morgan set out his plan yesterday as he held a ground-breaking meeting with the families involved in the 56 long-delayed inquests.

The private meeting came the day after Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said the Government would "look very seriously" at releasing money set aside under the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014 which could finance the so-called legacy inquests.

Sir Declan told the families: "It is my assessment that, provided the necessary resources are put in place and we obtain the full co-operation of the relevant State agencies - principally the PSNI and the Ministry of Defence - it should be possible to hear these cases within a reasonable timeframe, which I see as being about five years."

The Lord Chief Justice had ordered an intensive review of the 56 cases, involving 95 deaths arising from the Troubles and including cases carrying allegations of collusion, and killings by the security forces and paramilitaries.

The two-week review was conducted by Lord Justice Weir, who also attended yesterday's meeting, and who was scathing in his criticism of State agencies for on-going delays, questioning the failure of Government, MoD and PSNI to disclose documentation.

Sir Declan, who is also president of the Coroners Court system, said a bid for funding was now being developed and discussions had begun.

"From these discussions, and from the Secretary of State's speech at the University of Ulster yesterday, I have been given to understand that, if the Northern Ireland Executive asks for resources for legacy inquests, the request would be given very serious consideration by the Secretary of State," he said.

He also said discussions with the UN's special rapporteur and the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner had shown concerns "that we could miss the bigger picture if we focus solely on a series of individual cases".

Compared to the earlier suggestion of a single "super inquest", he argued: "I can see the potential benefits of linking certain cases and we might therefore decide that it would make sense to group a number of the cases together where there are common themes, to ensure that the wider picture is available."

He added: "It is clear that the existing Coroners Service is not adequately resourced to carry the weight of these cases and so we will need to establish a new, dedicated Legacy Inquest Unit as a matter of urgency.

"My ambition is to start listing cases from September onwards, but this will be predicated on the availability of resource."

He warned that if the unit was not set up, cases would continue to proceed very slowly.

He added: "I sincerely believe that if we are now in a position to make meaningful progress on this long-standing issue, and that if we do, it will provide a signal of hope to all victims and survivors that the remaining issues involved in dealing with the past can finally be resolved."

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