Northern Ireland

Government has 'legal obligation' over Troubles deaths inquests

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan
Image caption Earlier this year, Sir Declan Morgan announced a plan he said would result in 56 inquests being heard within five years

The state has a legal obligation to ensure inquests into some of the most controversial killings of the Troubles take place, Northern Ireland's most senior judge has said.

The Lord Chief Justice said a failure to do so could frustrate the rule of law.

Sir Declan Morgan added that the government and Stormont Executive must address the issue urgently.

There are 56 so-called legacy inquests involving 98 deaths.

Earlier this year, the LCJ announced a plan he said would result in all of those inquests being heard within five years.

First Minister Arlene Foster blocked a request for funding for the initiative.

"I hoped that it would receive a sympathetic hearing, I was disappointed that there was no immediate response," said Sir Declan.

"I hoped that in due course that the parties would be able to find a way forward, both those here within Northern Ireland and the secretary of state's office, but unfortunately so far that hasn't occurred."

Secretary of State James Brokenshire could unilaterally provide funding for the initiative, but to date has chosen not to do so.

Earlier this week he was asked several times by the BBC if he accepted that the British government was in breach of its legal obligations to ensure the inquests take place.

He did not acknowledge that was the case.

'Legal obligation'

After meeting Mr Brokenshire on Wednesday, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinnness accused the British government of not being "serious about dealing with the legacy of the past".

"The Lord Chief Justice has asked for funds for legacy inquests to be released immediately and the British government has a responsibility to do that," he said.

The Lord Chief Justice was clear that "the state is under a legal obligation" to act as quickly as possible.

"If the various agencies who are involved in examining this from a political point of view cannot reach an agreement then the danger is that the political process will end up frustrating the rule of law," he said.

"The parties, it seems to me, who are involved in these discussions need to take into account that there is a need for reasonable expedition, so it is up to them, it seems to me, to address this matter urgently so as to ensure that they comply with the legal obligations that all of us face in this area.

"This is not just a matter of policy, there is actually a legal obligation in relation to the legacy inquests."

He said the legal obligation to act also includes the Northern Ireland Executive.

'No special treatment'

On Monday, Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly told the BBC it was "appalling" that the families of those involved in the legacy inquests had not had their cases heard.

In response, Sir Declan said: "I'm not surprised that the families feel incredibly frustrated by the process.

"I may be disappointed that the work that we have done has not yet come to fruition, but for the families their degree of frustration having lived with these issues for so long must be all the greater and I recognise that."

The DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the party is not prepared to move forward on legacy issues on "a partial basis", where a a small number of victims had what he called "a privileged position".

The Lord Chief Justice rejected any suggestion that he is seeking special treatment for those cases.

"I think what I would say to that is that the legacy inquests are the only element of this arrangement for which I have direct responsibility and I saw it as my responsibility to find a way forward in relation to that," he explained.

"Others who have direct responsibility in relation to other areas, similarly it seems to me, have to find a way forward."

The Secretary of State has made it clear he wants legacy inquests to be part of a wider political agreement on how to deal with the past.

He told the BBC on Monday that a planned consultation on the issue will now not take place until he has "broad political consensus".

Sir Declan Morgan is eager for an agreement on legacy issues as quickly as possible.

"I don't see why the wider political agreement should not be addressed now. All the victims and survivors need this issue to be grasped," he said.

"This is the opportunity to do something about it. As the victims commissioner has said, there is a window of opportunity now, and we should not miss it."

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