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Troubles inquests delayed to run down clock until law kicks in – ex-NI Secretary

Troubles-related inquests are being delayed by state bodies “running down the clock” until May 1, when they will be discontinued, according to a former Northern Ireland secretary.

A new law, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, says any inquests that have not reached a verdict by that date will cease.

In their place, a new fact-finding body will be established and will provide conditional immunity from prosecution for those who co-operate with investigations.

Labour peer Lord Hain told the PA news agency: “I have been told authoritatively that key legacy inquests will be deliberately delayed so they lapse as the Act stipulates on 1 May.”

In the House of Lords, he asked Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Caine: “In relation to legacy inquests that are currently under way in Northern Ireland, is the minister not extremely perturbed, indeed embarrassed, by the fact that state bodies appear to be openly running down the clock to May 1, when the due process that we set such store by in the United Kingdom will no longer apply in Northern Ireland, thanks to the shameful Legacy Act?

“In one case, a Ministry of Defence official told an inquest that ‘we only have a single officer supporting Northern Ireland inquests’.

“And in another, the legal representative of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) admitted that further resources could be deployed and more progress made, but said in terms ‘what’s the point’?

“Is this not a disgraceful way to treat victims of the Troubles who have suffered so much already?

“And an abject failure by the state officials and agencies to produce the necessary files in anything like a timely fashion continues despite the relevant state bodies being directed to do so by a serving coroner acting with the full authority of the Lady Chief Justice.

Jeffrey Donaldson
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Liam McBurney/ PA credit)

“What on earth makes the minister think that a body which the Legacy Act sets up outside the judicial system headed by a retired Lord Chief Justice, however distinguished, will fare any better?

“Or, as many suspect, will those who will be denied proper inquests have to make do with a vastly inferior process on the cheap?”

Independent crossbench peer Baroness O’Loan, who was the first police ombudsman in Northern Ireland, added: “What is happening in Northern Ireland is outrageous at the moment and causes huge distress to victims.”

Their comments came as the upper chamber debated changes to the Windsor Framework that emerged as a result of the deal between the UK Government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and devolved government in Stormont.

The deal, secured by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, is set to reduce checks and paperwork on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Lord Caine did not respond to Lord Hain’s claims in his speech, but said he would write to peers regarding unanswered questions.