Stormont's Executive Office to pay for Troubles pension scheme

By Julian O'Neill
BBC News NI Home Affairs Correspondent

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Stormont's Executive Office has formally pledged to pay for a Troubles pension scheme, a court has been told.

The Department of Finance will make the necessary funding available to ensure eligible victims and survivors receive compensation.

The move was expected after agreement was reached earlier this month on this coming year's budget.

The estimated outlay for the scheme, over the next 20 years, could be up to £1.2bn.

Belfast High Court had been hearing a case brought by Brian Turley, one of those known as the Hooded Men, who were detained and subjected to special interrogation methods by the British military in the early 1970s.

He brought the case seeking a judgement to ensure a financial package was put in place.

In correspondence to the High Court, the Department of Finance has guaranteed payments will be made.

Image caption,
The Troubles claimed more than 3,500 lives

A letter sent on behalf of the Executive Office stated that "the payment is an entitlement as indicated by the court, and regardless of whether it comes from Westminster or from our block grant, it will be paid when it is due".

It added that First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy "undertake on behalf of their respective departments that payments will be made to successful applicants".

When the Department of Justice requests funding, the Executive Office is to be provided with the required money by the Department of Finance "without delay".

"The Executive Office will then, on receipt of such funding, make the necessary grants to the Department of Justice in response to its requests for funding," the letter stated.

Discussions between Stormont and the Northern Ireland Office are continuing over whether there will be any additional funding from London to help foot costs.

The letter added: "Ministers will continue to progress financial discussions with the Northern Ireland Office on the basis that it remains their shared view that the scheme should be funded by the Westminster government as an addition to the block grant, and in a manner consistent with the Statement of Funding Policy."

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan agreed that a "satisfactory" undertaking had been received by the court.

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Former NI secretary Julian Smith described the move as "very good news" and said the executive "ultimately took the right decision".

The court undertaking provides certainty to the thousands who will apply for a pension.

What does the decision mean?

There was inevitability about what has just happened because earlier this year the court ruled that Stormont was liable for the scheme,

Political agreement of the 2021-22 Stormont budget also paved the way for Monday's undertaking.

But it does not settle a behind-the-scenes dispute between Belfast and London.

Some NI ministers have questioned the pension's affordability without extra cash coming from the British government.

Negotiations continue over Stormont's request for additional cash outside the block grant to help foot the bill.

What is the Troubles pension scheme?

Thousands of people who were physically or mentally injured on a permanent basis will apply for sums of up to £10,000 a year.

The Troubles claimed more than 3,500 lives and the Northern Ireland Office has estimated another 40,000 people were injured.

The pensions scheme was drawn up in 2019 by the UK government, when the Stormont assembly was not functioning.

The scheme aims to provide pension-like payments to victims of the Troubles, every year for the rest of their lives, with payments ranging from £2,000 to £10,000.

Upon their death, a spouse or carer will get the payments for a further 10 years.

Image caption,
Victims will be eligible to apply if they were injured in an incident at any point between 1 January 1966 and 12 April 2010

Victims will be eligible to apply if they were injured in an incident at any point between 1 January 1966 and 12 April 2010, the date that responsibility for policing and justice was devolved to Stormont.

That can be physical injury, such as a loss of limbs, or psychological, caused by being present at a bombing, for example.

The scheme will also be open to those injured in incidents that took place outside Northern Ireland.

The pensions will be backdated to 2014 - the date when they were first agreed, in principle, by the Stormont parties under the Fresh Start Agreement.

Older victims, over the age of 60, may opt to receive a lump sum rather than annual payments.

A judge-led board will decide who qualifies for the scheme, with the government insisting it would only apply to people who were injured "through no fault of their own".

What has the reaction been?

Alan McBride of the Wave Trauma Centre, whose wife Sharon was killed in the 1993 IRA Shankill bomb, said the campaign for the pension started 13 years ago.

"The uncertainty that surrounded this pension was increasing the trauma for people that have been campaigning for this," he said.

"We've lost about four or five members in that time through ill health and old age, so to have this over the line is a really, really good news story."

First Minister Arlene Foster said it was a "very welcome day" for those set to benefit from the pension, adding that "the uncertainty for victims is now over".

"It has been a deeply frustrating journey towards this point, but I welcome that we have finally achieved agreement to confirm that the pension will be paid when it falls due to recipients," she said.

Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie said the negotiations for extra cash may continue but "injured victims should not be punished any longer".

"The executive must move immediately to provide certainty around application and payment dates, as well as how those who have waited longest might be prioritised within the scheme," he said.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly welcomed the news but said that there would be many victims and survivors who "will be wary of accepting the words of politicians".

"People who have suffered severe physical and mental injury over the course of conflict here have waited for far too long for recognition and redress," she said, adding that the first and deputy first ministers must now set out what will happen next.