Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster wrong to defer bid for legacy inquest funding, says judge

Belfast High Court judge Sir Paul Girvan said Arlene Foster was wrong to defer a bid to secure extra funding for legacy inquests

Former Stormont first minister Arlene Foster mistakenly deferred a bid for extra funding for inquests into historic killings in Northern Ireland, a judge has said.

She erroneously believed the £150 million allocated as part of the Stormont House Agreement should await the outcome of an overall package dealing with all legacy issues, Belfast High Court judge Sir Paul Girvan added.

He said more work was needed before the Treasury could approve the proposal and cautioned unlimited public funds were not available.

The judge said the obligation on the state to investigate deaths during the conflict remained whether or not devolved government was restored.

Brigid Hughes challenged ongoing failure by the Executive Office at Stormont, the Justice Department and the Northern Ireland Secretary to put in place adequate funding to prevent further delays in holding legacy inquests.

Her husband Anthony died in May 1987 when he was innocently caught in crossfire between soldiers and the IRA as republicans attacked Loughgall police station in Co Armagh.

It is one of 54 inquests into 94 deaths for which Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan has sought additional funding to complete within five years.

Mrs Hughes said: "I am very pleased that things have worked out today the way they have but they have taken a very long time."

Judge Sir Paul Girvan said: "She (Arlene Foster) was in error in concluding that it was legally proper to defer consideration of the funding issue because in the absence of an overall package, the provision of additional funds to deal with the systemic delays in the legacy inquests would favour victims who were not innocent as against innocent victims of the Troubles."

He said Secretary of State Karen Bradley was responsible for overseeing the functioning of government and added there was a political vacuum.

He said: "The relevant parties must reconsider the question of the provision of additional funding in light of the fact that finding a resolution of the funding issue cannot be postponed until an outcome to a political agreement on other legacy issues."

Responding to today’s ruling at Belfast High Court, Sinn Féin Vice-President Michelle O’Neill said: “It vindicates the long campaign by victims and survivors waiting decades for Inquests into their loved ones deaths.

“Karen Bradley, the British Secretary of State should now move immediately to release this funding as she had agreed in the recent talks process.

“The victims and survivors of conflict right across the community should not be punished any further because of DUP intransigence.”

Responding to the judgment, a British government spokeswoman said: "We need to take time to consider the judgment. Our thoughts today remain with all of the families in Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones as a result of the Troubles.

"The Secretary of State is very clear the current approach to addressing the legacy of the past is not working as it should. The UK government is committed to working towards the full implementation of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and the new bodies for addressing the legacy of the past."

Outside court Mrs Hughes' solicitor stressed the significance of the ruling for those still seeking inquests into the deaths of loved ones. Peter Corrigan of KRW Law said: "The families need to have justice, there are serious violations of human rights." 

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