Villiers trying to ‘stymie' work of solicitors on Troubles cases
SECRETARY of State Theresa Villiers has been accused of trying to "stymie" the work of human rights solicitors who represent families of people killed during the Troubles.
Leading solicitor Kevin Winters says he was prompted to speak out after Ms Villiers delivered a keynote speech on the past.
In a highly unusual move, the well known legal figure has publicly accused the British government of being "hostile" to the work carried out by lawyers who specialise in legacy cases.
Mr Winters represents the families of around 300 people killed during the Troubles.
He is also involved in some of the most controversial conflict related inquests including that of Co Derry GAA official Sean Brown, the British army killing of eight IRA men at Loughgall in1987 and the deaths of ten Protestant men at Kingsmill in 1976.
While many of the people he represents believe their loved ones died as a result of security force collusion with loyalists and shoot-to-kill operations, Mr Winters also represents people who believe there was British collusion with republicans.
Earlier his month Ms Villiers referred to what she described as a "pernicious counter narrative" and said it is "a version of the Troubles that seeks to displace responsibility from the people who perpetrated acts of terrorism and place the state at the heart of nearly every atrocity and murder that took place."
She said the British security agencies were responsible for 10 percent of deaths during the Troubles.
Mr Winters questioned the timing of the remarks and said they came as authorities faced criticism over how they handle legacy inquests, resource the past and are under pressure over whether there was prior warning of the Shanklill bomb which killed 10 people in 1993.
"I think the timing of what she said was more than just co-incidental, we see it as a shot across our bows," he said.
"It is on the back of a huge tranche of increased litigation and legal cases and we would say the state would certainly be hostile to the work we do as lawyers.
"Good, if that’s the case it means we are doing our job."
The solicitor also claimed that Ms Villiers remarks were made in the context of increased evidence of what he calls "republican collusion" with British intelligence agencies.
"There’s a number of dynamics emerging here, there’s the evolving dynamic of republican collusion which up until recently has not been aired," he said.
"We have seen that in relation to Kingsmill, Claudy, Birmingham, Shankill Road and so on.
"That demonstrates that collusion was not the preserve of one sector of the conflict and that is an uncomfortable reality that is now emerging."
The leading solicitor believes collusion was widespread.
"I say, we say, collusion was a state practice that was systemic throughout the conflict," he said.
"It didn’t exist in isolated outbursts here and there."
"Those are issues that are now increasingly the subject of legal litigation and it’s that that we say is the timing of this statement by Theresa Villiers."
He said the De Silva review into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989 confirmed the existence of collusion.
He also suggested that relatives are being forced to find answers through the inquest process because no other mechanism for truth recovery exists.
"Their voice has absolutely no prospect of being heard as matters stand currently if they are to rely on politics delivering," he said.
"That’s not going to happen.
"I believe there is no chance of politics resolving these issues in the near future.
"The only mechanism right now is strategic legal engagement supported by informed NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) and others."
Mr Winters believes that Ms Villiers intervention had a specific purpose.
"I see it as design to stymie or somehow undermine the work that we and others do," he said.
The solicitor said there are currently around 40 separate legal challenges connected to alleged failures by the British government linked to Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights - which protects the right to life.
"Those sort of statistics say it all," he said.
Mr Winters said suggestions by authorities that there are not enough resources to deal with the past are not accepted by families or legal representatives.
"The British government have been told repeatedly by the European Court that resources isn’t an argument or a reason for failing to investigate the past properly.
"That doesn’t wash, I think everyone now is alive to this and are fed up listening to this argument constantly peddled as the reason why things can’t happen."
He also voiced concern that state representatives are increasingly complaining about resources during civil court proceedings.
"Where the solicitors on behalf of the state are defending actions brought by families are now also jumping on the resource bandwagon and are citing resources as the reason for instance they can’t access documents, they can’t read documents and they can’t make them available to the court or to any party."
During last week’s address Ms Villiers said legal aid, which many families rely on to mount legal challenges, continues to grow, "diverting resources which could be used for policing the present rather than the past."
Mr Winters criticised these remarks.
"There was a blunt reference to legal aid and we see that as a direct threat to the work that we do to try to try to downsize or somehow denigrate the work in terms of its increased cost to the legal aid budget," he said.
"We find that deeply offensive and we reject it."
The lawyer said that funding for dealing with the past should come from the Westminster government.
He revealed he has asked the Department of Justice at Stormont to establish what steps have been taken to address the "funding deficit on the past" but has yet to be told.
The solicitor said that both families and members of the legal profession are becoming increasingly frustrated by continued delays.
He added that legal representatives should not be left to resolve outstanding issues arising from the Troubles.
"Whenever another family comes through our door who lost a loved one through the conflict I keep saying we are the last people you should be talking to," he said.
"We should be involved in buying and selling houses and whiplash claims and other work like that.
"There’s something seriously wrong when lawyers are increasingly asked to deal with these sorts of issues.
"That’s the way it’s been this last five or six years and that’s the way it’s going to continue.
"That in itself reflects the serious failings of the state to deal with this."
The Northern Ireland Office did not respond to requests for a comment.