Civil service ‘wrongly challenged’ in legacy funding case

Brigid Hughes has brought the case
Brigid Hughes has brought the case

A Stormont department is being wrongly challenged over former first minister Arlene Foster’s alleged block on discussion of a bid to fund legacy inquests, the High Court has heard.

Counsel for The Executive Office argued that it held no responsibility for setting the agenda at cabinet meetings.

The widow of an innocent civilian shot dead along with eight IRA men is seeking to judicially review the governments in London and Belfast for failing to release the funds necessary to hold a series of inquests into killings from Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

Bu Peter Coll QC contended: “If the court accepts the applicant’s contention that the Executive Office has a role to play, it would amount to a classic case of the departmental tail wagging the ministerial dog.”

Brigid Hughes’ husband, Anthony, died after being unwittingly caught up in the SAS ambush of an IRA unit at Loughgall, Co Armagh in May 1987.

She has issued proceedings against the secretary of state, the Stormont administration and Mrs Foster personally amid claims she unlawfully stopped a funding paper being discussed at Executive level in 2016.

Attorney General John Larkin QC, representing the former first minister, has insisted she acted impeccably.

And Mr Coll submitted on Thursday that the case against The Executive Office also “fell into error” by conflating its functions with those elected to it.

Deciding the agenda for Stormont cabinet meetings was a matter for the first and deputy first ministers, he told the court.

More than 50 legacy inquests into deaths going back decades currently remain outstanding.

A funding request paper was drawn up by the Department of Justice after Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, advanced a plan to have a backlog of cases dealt with within five years.

But the government indicated that the required financial resources will not be released until political consensus is reached on dealing with the past.

The judge hearing the case, Sir Paul Girvan, has been told the coronial system has been starved of funding and left in a state of collapse.

Mrs Hughes lawyers claim none of the respondents have accepted responsibility.

However, Mr Coll contended that no proper challenge has been established against his client.

“The applicant falls into error when conflating the ministers ... and The Executive Office,” he said.

Following submissions, Sir Paul adjourned the hearing until next Wednesday.