For those who lost loved ones during the Troubles, when it comes to conducting inquests into deaths in Northern Ireland, it is déjà vu over and over again.
Two years ago, Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice introduced a plan for completing inquests into 54 controversial killings within five years. The State, he said, had a legal obligation to move these inquests expeditiously and delay would frustrate the rule of law.
He also said the disappointment and hurt of victims and survivors, who have “lived with these issues for so long,” presented an exigency that required action “now.” Noting the inquests should not be treated as political footballs, he called for funding by the Government and Stormont Executive.
Recently, a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that the First Minister of the collapsed Northern Ireland Executive acted unlawfully in blocking the funding request. The First Minister had criticized the Lord Chief Justice’s plan, saying the inquests were not evenly balanced between State and paramilitary killings. She used that argument to justify the funding denial and said none would be provided until there was a political agreement on how to deal with the legacy of the past.
The Court determined the decision to withhold funding until there was an agreement covering 2,000 killings was flawed. The Court found the existing lack of resources for inquests had caused systemic delays and human rights violations. In a separate ruling, the First Minister was ordered to pay litigation costs.
The case was brought to the High Court by the widow of an innocent man killed along with eight IRA men in 1987 in Loughall, Co. Armagh. The IRA men from the Tyrone Brigade were killed while attacking an unmanned RUC police station.
Aware of the attack beforehand, British SAS (Special Air Service) members ambushed and shot them. In the fray, the SAS mistook two brothers who had just finished work for an IRA back-up team and shot them. One died and the other survived. The incident is a controversial example of the government’s “shoot to kill” policy during the Troubles.
An expeditious, independent, transparent and Article 2 (European Convention on Human Rights) compliant investigation of the innocent brother’s three decade old killing has not begun, despite the Advocate General’s 2015 direction to conduct one. A year later, the inquest into his death was included in the Lord Chief Justice’s funding request. To end further delay, the victim’s widow challenged the failure of the Executive Office at Stormont and other parties to fund it.
The widow was victorious to the extent the High Court found the State’s duty to undertake the inquest with reasonable expedition includes an obligation to make resources available. The Court, however, did not go beyond chiding government officials to heed its decision when exercising their responsibilities.
Despite its findings, the Court has not yet addressed remedies or ordered the Stormont Executive and Secretary of State to provide funding. Thus, the decision has not appreciably changed the inquest's status. It remains as it was two years ago - still unscheduled and still a symbol of a failed system.
The Stormont House Agreement in 2014 established a mechanism to handle legacy cases and recognized the State’s obligation to deliver truth and justice to victims and survivors of the Troubles. Four years later, there has been little progress on this critical issue. If ignored, these cases will not go away.
As Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, the past “has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately.”
The Lord Chief Justice’s plan for conducting inquests presented a way forward, by breaking the cycle of talking about but not actually addressing the past. Dealing with the past in an open and honest manner lays a foundation for developing trust, healing wounds, repairing relationships and reconciling society.
The failure to fund inquests thwarts progress on the shared future Northern Ireland desires. It leaves those who lost loved ones experiencing déjà vu all over again.
They deserve to know how and why their loved ones died. The Government should fund these inquests immediately and answer these questions in full.
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