Northern Ireland

Lord Chief Justice hits back at criticism of handling of Troubles inquests

Sir Declan Morgan Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Sir Declan Morgan said: "It would be wrong to allow the families concerned to believe that we can somehow achieve the impossible under the existing inquest process."

The Lord Chief Justice has denied claims he prioritised Troubles inquests in which State forces are being held to account, rather than paramilitaries.

Sir Declan Morgan, who set out his plans for dealing with 54 Troubles legacy cases in 2015, made his remarks to the Victims and Survivors Forum.

He said a lack of political agreement and funding for his plan has resulted in a "wasted year" for victims.

He added Stormont's collapse meant the delay would now drag on even longer.

In his speech to the forum on Friday, Sir Declan said it was "simply not correct" to suggest that he has chosen to give priority to cases in which it is the State that is being held to account rather than "terrorist organisations".

His speech was delivered a day after Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, said he was insulted by claims that Troubles prosecution cases involving former soldiers were unfairly prioritised by his office.

Sir Declan told the forum that he wants to see outcomes delivered for all victims and survivors and that he has not sought to promote the rights of any group of victims or survivors to the detriment of others.

About 50 legacy inquests, some relating to Troubles killings 45 years ago, have yet to be heard.

'Bitterly disappointed '

In February last year, Sir Declan proposed that a specialist unit be set up that could deal with the cases within five years.

However, politicians have yet to agree to release £10m needed to fund the process.

The money to fund the new unit will be accessed as part of a government financial package addressing a range of issues related to Northern Ireland's past.

"Wasted time is something we can ill afford but it is as yet unclear to me when there may be a further opportunity to move forward on these matters," he said.

"I cannot ignore my statutory responsibilities but I do understand the fears and concerns of other victims and survivors, many of whom are also bitterly disappointed by the delay in achieving a political resolution on an overall legacy package."

He added: "It would be wrong to allow the families concerned to believe that we can somehow achieve the impossible under the existing inquest process.

"If the resources I have requested are not forthcoming, we will need to make a careful assessment of what can reasonably be achieved within the limited budget.

'Courage and maturity'

The DUP has said it would be unfair to proceed with legacy inquests, many of which focus on State killings, when investigations into paramilitary murders are on hold.

Former Justice Minister Mr Ford backed Sir Declan's call for political parties to show "courage and maturity" to get progress on the matter:

"With the dissolution of the Assembly and subsequent election, plus any potential talks process, it is likely we will see the needs of victims put on hold even longer.

"Those needs are far too important to be passed around like a political football. It is a matter of shame the Lord Chief Justice has had to make the speech he did today. "

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