The Troubles: Victims denied pensions they 'indisputably deserve'

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Jennifer McNern (centre) outside Belfast High Court On MondayImage source, Liam McBurney/PA
Image caption,
Jennifer McNern is one of those bringing a legal challenge

A High Court judge has said a delay in implementing the Troubles pension cannot be tolerated.

Mr Justice McAlinden made the comments during a legal challenge to the delay. The scheme was due to open for applications in May.

He repeatedly indicated that Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill is ignoring the rule of law by blocking progress on the pension scheme.

Mr Justice McAlinden will deliver a formal ruling on Friday.

The proceedings were brought by Jennifier McNern, who lost her legs in an IRA bomb attack on the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast city centre in March 1972, and Brian Turley, one of a group known as the "Hooded Men" who say they were subjected to torture after being held without trial in 1971.

The victims' payments were approved by Westminster in January.

The would provide regular payments to people who were seriously injured during the Troubles, but it has been long delayed by arguments over the definition of a Troubles victim and whether ex-prisoners, including former paramilitaries, should be entitled to apply for payments.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
The High Court Judge has accused NI Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill of deliberately choosing to ignore the rule of law

Ms O'Neill has declined to progress the scheme by refusing to allow the Executive Office, of which she is jointly in charge, to nominate a department to administer the pension payments.

Sinn Féin has claimed that the criteria for those who are eligible to apply potentially discriminates against some republicans with convictions from the Troubles.

'Political dispute'

Mr Justice McAlinden repeatedly indicated that Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill is ignoring the rule of law by blocking progress on the pension scheme.

He said the only sensible interpretation he could draw was that there has been a deliberate attempt to "stymie" the scheme because of a fundamental disagreement over who can apply.

"An argument in relation to who is entitled to compensation is being used as a reason to delay compliance with a statutory duty," he said.

"In doing so individuals who no-one disputes are entitled to claim these pensions, such as Ms McNern who was blown up on March 4, 1972, losing both legs, she has to wait and be kept out of her pension because of a political dispute over who should and should not be entitled to these pensions.

"I cannot think of any other circumstances which would cry out more clearly for a declaration from the court of unlawful behaviour than this scenario.

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The challenge is being heard at Belfast High Court

"What we are dealing with here is a quite clear and obvious legal requirement, which appears to have been disregarded for political ends.

"That seems to be the fundamental striking at the principle of the rule of law, and that's something the court cannot ignore and the court cannot tolerate.

"The court must declare unequivocally the primacy of the rule of law."

A lawyer for the Executive Office said the deputy first minister was acting in her capacity as vice president of Sinn Féin.

But Mr Justice McAlinden responded that her position within the Stormont administration - and the obligations to comply with the law - could not be ignored.