Michelle O'Neill to nominate department for pension scheme but division still remains after court ruling
MICHELLE O'Neill yesterday conceded that a High Court ruling on the delayed pension for Troubles victims has left her with "no alternative other than to designate a department" to oversee the scheme.
The Sinn Féin deputy first minister's remarks followed a ruling by Mr Justice McAlinden that said she was deliberately stymieing the scheme's introduction in a bid to pressurise the British government into changing its terms.
The Executive Office has been given seven days to respond to the ruling, which came after a joint action brought by Jennifer McNern, who lost both legs in the 1972 IRA bombing of the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast city centre, and Brian Turley, one of the so-called Hooded Men, who were arrested and tortured by the British army in 1971.
The payment scheme based on Westminster legislation was due to open for applications in May but has stalled due to a row between Sinn Féin and the British government over eligibility criteria.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Ms O'Neill said she would nominate a department but continued to insist the scheme was "exclusionary, discriminatory and divisive".
"Its policy intent was and remains to create a hierarchy of victims, and reinforce the British state narrative around the conflict," she said.
She said she was committed to delivering a scheme based on "equality and open to everyone who was seriously physically and psychologically injured during the conflict".
The Sinn Féin minister said the designation of a department would require cooperation within the executive to secure additional funds from Westminster, alongside further clarity on eligibility.
She accused the British government of reneging on previous commitments on legacy made in the Stormont House agreement and she called on London and Dublin to convene a summit to address the outstanding issues.
Mrs Foster welcomed the ruling, describing it as a "massive win for innocent victims".
She said Ms O'Neill's refusal to designate a department "lacked basic compassion".
"Regardless of Sinn Féin's view of the scheme eligibility, they should not have sidelined those who were eligible because perpetrators were not," she said.
The DUP leader repeated her call for the British government to provide "budget uplift".
Ms McNern responded by saying she should never have had to take the case.
"We need our politicians to act on this now and implement the scheme," she said.
Mr Turley said the Executive Office needed to explain its "profound unprofessionalism".
"The delay in having to wait on my right to a pension can only be described as another form of torture," he said.
Commissioner for Victims and Survivors Judith Thompson said the scheme needed to go live immediately.
She said her office was currently taking legal advice over the scheme's guidelines but "disquiet" about the qualifying criteria should not be a barrier to putting it in place.
"People have died in the time that this delay has occurred, and we cannot afford for that to continue to happen," she said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the ruling "leaves no room for prevarication or spin",
"Delivering this pension is a critical element of healing the legacy of our past," he said.
"It may suit some parties to keep these wounds open but it is deeply unfair to those who have suffered so much."
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry welcomed the judgment but said it should never have had to go to court.
"Regardless of which department is designated, the executive need to work collectively to ensure agreement with the Northern Ireland Office on funding is achieved as soon as possible," he said.
"It is disgraceful victims needed to go so far to achieve another step on their journey towards getting what they are entitled to."
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said ruling left "no hiding place for those who have held up this payment".
"The ruling could not be clearer – it was unlawful to block the payment from being put in place," he said.
"Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Féin should be totally ashamed of themselves – although I doubt that they will be."
The chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Simon Hoare said the "spotlight is now on the deputy first minister".
The MP said the scheme had been "cruelly and unnecessarily delayed".