Northern Ireland’s most senior judge has called on political leaders to agree on funding to get urgent progress on inquests from the Troubles.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said delays to the backlog of cases were hugely disappointing and could mean further devastation for grieving families.
The judge told the opening of the region’s new law term that if a deal was not done it could be decades before all the outstanding cases would be completed - a breach of legal requirements to have them heard in a reasonable time.
Sir Declan noted the NI Department of Justice had not revealed yet the full cost of dealing with the past.
“Disappointingly, however, it now appears that a political resolution will be required on an overall legacy package before the resources required for legacy inquests will be released,” he said.
“It is impossible to see how the issue of legacy can be moved forward politically without progress having been made on the new legislation and in the absence of a clear assessment of the costs involved in implementing all of the elements of a legacy package.
“The overall picture is, therefore, hugely disappointing.”
Dozens of the most highly disputed cases from the Troubles are awaiting inquests, decades after the killings took place.
They span allegations of security force misinformation to frame the IRA for bombings, state collusion in loyalist murders, inept police investigations and IRA men shot dead by the army as part of a claimed policy of shooting to kill in which civilians died in the crossfire.
Sir Declan has proposed a dedicated unit to hear cases over the next five years but that is dependent on getting the funds from the British government.
In his address in Belfast, the Lord Chief Justice warned that coroners would only have resources to complete two more inquests this financial year and he called on ministers in the Stormont Executive and Westminster to act.
“The coroner’s courts will not be able to satisfy their legal obligation to deliver these inquests within a reasonable timeframe in the absence of the necessary resources,” he said.
“I do not want us to remain in that position since that would be yet another devastating blow to the families.
“The judiciary will be facing up to its responsibilities but this is not a matter on which the judiciary alone can deliver.
“I therefore call again on the local Executive and legislature, and on the UK Government, to play their part as a matter of urgency. We cannot move on while we remain under the shadow of the past. Nor should we. But time is not on our side.”
Victims’ campaigners said there were 57 legacy inquests involving almost 100 killings.
Mark Thompson, director of Relatives for Justice (RFJ), which supports 40 families, accused the Secretary of State's office of playing politics with the issue by seeking agreement from the Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.
“This is a reserved matter for the sovereign government not the devolved administration,” Mr Thompson said.
“The time has come for politicking by the Northern Ireland Office and London on this matter to cease.
“Families have faced decades of deliberate delay, exacerbating their trauma, as well as denying their rights as victims, and it is unacceptable that the NIO continue to delay.”