Theresa Villiers hints at release of ‘legacy money’

Secretary of State for Northern Irelan, Theresa Villiers

Secretary of State for Northern Irelan, Theresa Villiers

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (SoS), Theresa Villiers has given an indication she is prepared to release some of the £150 million earmarked for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

Ms Villiers was responding during a debate in the House of Commons at which Labour MPs pressurised her into giving assurances that the PSNI and the coroners office received funding to help deal with investigating killings during the conflict.

However, the SoS maintained the British Government position that progress with regard to the issue was dependent on local politicians coming to agreement on a way forward with legacy issues. This part of the Stormont House Agreement or ‘Fresh Start’ deal remains outstanding.

Theresa Villiers said that she would take “very seriously” a request to release cash for inquests if a “credible” political package was agreed upon by Stormont representatives.

The remarks were made during the second reading of the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill on Monday, which was passed through unopposed.

The proposed legislation seeks to implement parts of two political deals aimed at maintaining stability within the political institutions in Belfast. These include an Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary activity, changes to ensure that paramilitary activity is challenged by MLAs as well as ensuring the amount of British Government cash required for the Northern Ireland budget is made clear to the Assembly.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker, addressing legacy issues, said victims must be at the heart of any agreements.

He called for an “urgent look” at the resources available to the PSNI and the coroners service to support investigations and speed up inquests, noting: “More and more delay for victims is unacceptable.”

“I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request that the First Minister has made and I’d ask the Secretary of State, I know she’s not going to be able to answer that now, but I think it’s something the Secretary of State and the minister of state - with the Government - should consider in order to take forward.”

Ms Villiers, intervening, replied: “The Fresh Start Agreement does make it clear that the £150 million package to support legacy is linked to the establishment of the new bodies.

“But we’re listening carefully to the representations made, particularly in relation to inquests.

“If a credible reform package for inquests is put together then we take very seriously a request to provide some funding to support it.”

Mr Coaker welcomed the “helpful” response, adding the implication is Ms Villiers is “open to making money available” both to the PSNI and the coroners service.

He said: “I think that is what victims would expect. They know it’s difficult to come to an agreement with respect to how to deal with the past, the proposed institutions are there but the agreement is not yet reached.

“But at the same time work has to be taken forward.”

The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell said he would attempt to amend the Bill to try to properly deal with legacy issues and to end the “piecemeal approach” to helping victims and survivors move on.

“The big absence of this Bill is of course reference to the legacies of the past and particularly issues pertaining to legacy,” the MP for South Belfast said.

“We have made our views clear on those - the victims, survivors and their needs must be paramount and vague claims about national security preventing disclosure cannot and must not add up.

“There is no degree of honesty or integrity in rolling these out to block every effort to uncover the truth and establish accountability and transparency.

“Northern Ireland society cannot, as some would have it, just move on and forget about the past, abandon the hurt and the needs of victims and survivors.

“The wounds of the past must be healed and the victims and survivors across our society I believe have waited far too long.”

Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, accused Sinn Fein of “re-writing the history of the Troubles”.

He told the House: “We know that their game is about pretending against the reality that of all the deaths that occurred in the Troubles, 90% of those killings were carried out by paramilitary organisations, 90% of them.

“Yet if you follow the media coverage, if you read your newspapers, if you look at the amount of money that is spent on investigations and inquests, far more, proportionately far more of that resource and media coverage goes on the 10% of deaths that are attributed to the state.

“Many of them, I have to say, are deaths that were the result of the security forces killing people who were engaging in acts of terrorism, but far more emphasis, far more resource, goes on those deaths than on the 90% of people, innocent victims, murdered by paramilitary organisations.”

Mr Donaldson called for progress on the legacy issue and for additional, non-frontline police funding to be made available to make it happen.

Tom Elliott, of the Ulster Unionists said he has “major concerns” about how effective it would be.

The MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said: “If there is a doubt around the pledge or undertaking, if it will make any difference at all, I have to say when some people bombed and murdered in the past I’m not so sure whether taking a pledge of ministerial office or taking an undertaking as assembly members would make much difference to them.

“I think if they could do that in the past I don’t think this is going to make a huge amount of difference.”