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Ritchie's legal advice revealed

Counsel expressed major concerns

By Noel McAdam

The legal advice given to Executive Minister Margaret Ritchie from government lawyers and an independent barrister over the loyalist funding controversy can be revealed today.

The arguments set out by senior counsel both inside and outside the Department of Social Development, reveal significant concerns over potential for a successful legal challenge over her controversial decision to withdraw funding from a UDA-linked community project.

Senior Crown Counsel for Northern Ireland, Bernard McCloskey, warned if the Social Development Minister made a decision to withdraw funding it " would be vulnerable to successful legal challenge" - while the independent barrister warned of difficulties but said they could be " robustly defended".

As ministers today remained at loggerheads, it also emerged General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body told Mrs Ritchie they had seen a " significant" document from the UDA.

Extracts of legal advice reveal concerns over the potential for a successful legal challenge

Documents seen by the Belfast Telegraph reveal that, apart from a judicial review, the minister's decision could also bring a court application for an injunction.

But external legal advice, also obtained by the Telegraph, said that, while doubts remained, a decision to cease the £1.28m funding to the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) "can still be robustly defended".

Brett Lockhart, QC, said, however, the question remained whether the SDLP minister "is lawfully entitled to cease funding on the basis of events to date".

With Finance Minister Peter Robinson believed to be seeking further legal advice following yesterday's five-and-a-half hour Executive meeting, both legal opinions agree that the organisation most closely involved in the CTI has not breached contractual conditions.

And they indicate that Farset Community Enterprises, which directly administers the project, is entitled to further notice before their funding is axed.

Mr McCloskey said he confirmed there had been "no defaulting conduct" on the part of the contracting organisation and Mr Lockhart said, since an undertaking of 30 days notice had been given, "such a promise would need to be acted on and honoured".

The separate legal opinions are essential to explaining the background to Mrs Ritchie's verdict, which has gained widespread public support but divided Executive Ministers with Sinn Fein and the DUP on one side and Ulster Unionists with the sole SDLP Minister on the other.Mr McCloskey also advised the minister that the recent events in Carrickfergus, connected to the UDA, should be "disregarded" because the entire south east Antrim area does not constitute a "target area" of the CTI.

His opinion said the International Commissioning on Decommissioning had informed the minister they had "seen a document which they felt was significant" and the Ulster Political Research Group had told her " the UDA planned to make a significant step forward on November 11 which could be jeopardised by the withdrawal of CTI funding as this would " derail their efforts to move the UDA forward and play into the hands of those who did not support the winding down of the UDA".

And Mr Lockhart said: "There is no evidence in my possession that suggests that Farset as an organisation are in breach of any of the funding conditions."

In a memorandum dated October 16, Mr McCloskey said he could identify " no freestanding statutory power to either reduce or withdraw the funding."

The Department of Social Development today said: "The opinions you have is privileged information. You should not have it and the Department asks for it to be returned immediately."

Belfast Telegraph


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