Abbie Llewelyn, PA political staff
Troubles-related inquests are being delayed by UK state bodies “running down the clock” until May 1st, when they will be discontinued, according to a former UK Northern Ireland secretary.
The UK government’s new 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.
“I have been told authoritatively that key legacy inquests will be deliberately delayed so they lapse as the Act stipulates on May 1st,” Labour peer Lord Hain said.
In the UK’s 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 1st, 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.
“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 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 Britain to Northern Ireland.
Lord Caine is set to respond to peers later.