Northern Ireland

Lord Chief Justice legacy inquests plan put on hold

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Media captionFamilies who lost loved ones in controversial circumstances during the Troubles have campaigned for inquests

A radical plan by Northern Ireland's most senior judge to deal with inquests into some of the most controversial killings of the Troubles has been put on hold.

The Stormont Executive failed to sign off on a request for funding.

The Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan wanted funding for a five-year programme to hear the inquests.

But, the proposed bid for the money was not even discussed by the executive before the last assembly was dissolved.

It is understood that the Lord Chief Justice is bitterly disappointed by the failure of the executive to act on the proposal.

Under the executive's rules, the funding proposal needed the agreement of the first and deputy first ministers to make it on to the agenda for discussion.

Several sources have told the BBC that first minister Arlene Foster blocked its inclusion.

In a statement this afternoon, the DUP said the proposal would have impacted on the ability of the executive to address the needs of innocent victims.

It said the issue will be considered again by the new executive formed after this week's assembly elections.

Image caption It is understood Sir Declan Morgan is bitterly disappointed over the failure to act on his proposal

Logjam

Dozens of outstanding legacy inquests involving more than 80 deaths remain to be heard.

They include some of the Troubles' most controversial killings such as those that involve the security forces and collusion allegations.

The Lord Chief Justice met relatives of many of the victims three months ago.

Afterwards, he announced a plan to break the logjam.

He said all the inquests could be heard within five years, providing the necessary funding was available.

Sir Declan Morgan also said he had been told the Secretary of State would give careful consideration to a request by the Stormont Executive for the government to release a portion of the £150m package it has set aside to deal with the past.

Among those who welcomed the announcement at the time was the daughter of Joseph Corr.

The 45-year-old was one of 11 people shot dead by soldiers in what has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971.

"The Lord Chief Justice really gave the families in the room that day hope, and there wasn't just the Ballymurphy families, there were loads of victims," said Eileen McKeown.

Proposal

"We really felt on a high that this man, the Lord Chief Justice, was on our side."

Image caption Eileen McKeown's father was one of the Ballymurphy victims who were shot dead by soldiers in west Belfast in 1971

But, Sir Declan Morgan's plan is now on hold because the Stormont Executive failed to sign off on a proposal to ask the Secretary of State for the necessary funding.

The BBC has established that the Department of Justice spoke to the Lord Chief Justice and then, in March, submitted two papers on the issue to the executive.

They included a proposal to ask Theresa Villiers to release more than £10m of government funding earmarked to deal with the past.

But, the issue did not make it on to the agenda for the executive's last meeting in March.

No discussion meant no agreement, and no funding.

Last week, the judge in charge of the coroner's courts broke the news in a letter to legal teams for the victims' families who had met the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr Justice Colton informed them it is unclear when Sir Declan's plan can be implemented.

'Ten steps back'

Ms McKeown said the news was very disappointing for the families of victims.

"People have to put themselves in our situation," she said.

"We get one step forward and then ten steps back.

"When we saw the Hillsborough families last week on the news, as before when we saw the Bloody Sunday families, every time we see that happening we think our inquest is going to be next.

"Then the British government steps in, and the executive, and knock it all for six."

Joseph Corr's son was with him on the day he was killed.

He is now seriously ill in hospital and the family fears this delay means he will not see the outcome of the inquest.

"We don't think he has much longer to live," said Michael Corr, his son.

"I always promised him that before he died, the Ballymurphy case would be closed.

"Now I feel as if I am letting him down."

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