NI deal could be ‘game-changer’ in cutting historic murder inquiry delays

Daughter of loyalist murder victim insists delays still not acceptable

The Stormont House political deal could be a "game-changer" in reducing delays over investigating murders from Northern Ireland's troubled past, the High Court in Belfast heard.

Counsel for Minister for Justice David Ford claimed the establishment of a new unit for investigating the killings as part of the agreement will help get the timescale back on track.

But a lawyer representing the pensioner daughter of one loyalist murder victim insisted the plans were still not acceptable.

Patricia Bell (67), is seeking to challenge the estimated 2025 target date for a Police Ombudsman report into the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Patrick Murphy was shot dead on his 63rd birthday in November 1982. He was shot as he served customers at his general grocer’s shop on Mount Merrion Road in Belfast.

His family lodged a complaint with the police watchdog back in 2004 based on alleged serious failings in the investigation into the killing.

Last autumn the current Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, revealed his budget had been reduced by about £750,000. Due to the funding cuts the examination of historic cases was expected to be delayed by years.

Judicial review proceedings have been lodged against both the Ombudsman’s Office and the Department of Justice, claiming the hold-up is unlawful and in breach of a statutory obligation to investigate. The case has been grouped with a separate legal challenge over the delay in investigating one of the most gruesome killings in Northern Ireland’s history.

Patrick Benstead (32), from the Short Strand area of east Belfast, was abducted and taken to a loyalist drinking den where he was beaten and then shot in December 1972. His torture and murder was among 22 carried out by a UDA gang - eight of which became known as the ‘Romper Room’ killings.

Amid suspicions that the loyalists were in collusion with a military unit and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Benstead family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman back in 2006.

But in court on Monday, a barrister representing the Minister for Justice in both cases stressed the significance of a new agency for investigatiing Troubles-related deaths.

Under the Stormont House Agreement reached by the political parties just before Christmas an historical investigations unit (HIU) is to take responsibility for examining legacy cases.

Peter Coll QC told the court the deal could be “a game-changer” in both the Murphy and Benstead cases. “I’m instructed this morning it’s anticipated that the HIU will be established and operational by the summer of 2016,” he said.

A five-year timescale for completing inquiries transferred over the unit remains in place, the court was told. Both legal challenges are still expected to proceed at a later date.

Outside court, Mrs Bell’s solicitor insisted it remains unacceptable for her to have to wait 17 years from lodging her complaint.

Ciaran Toner, of Finucane Toner law firm, said: “Irrespective of the Stormont House Agreement, the delay is unlawful and there is a statutory obligation for the Police Ombudsman to investigate.”