The NI Executive Office is acting unlawfully in delaying the introduction of a compensation scheme for injured Troubles victims, a judge has ruled.
Mr Justice McAlinden was ruling on a legal challenge to the delay brought to the High Court in Belfast.
The victims’ payments were approved by Westminster in January.
They would give regular payments to people seriously injured, but have been long delayed by arguments over the definition of a Troubles victim.
The judge said the Executive Office was deliberately stymieing the commencement of payouts in order to pressurise the government into funding it and, in Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s case, getting the eligibility criteria changed.
Ms O’Neill had declined to progress the scheme by refusing to allow the Executive Office – which she runs jointly with DUP First Minister Arlene Foster – to nominate a department to administer the pension payments.
Sinn Féin has said the criteria for those who are eligible to apply potentially discriminates against some republicans with convictions from the Troubles.
Following Friday’s court ruling, Ms O’Neill said: “As joint head of government I remain committed to delivering a scheme, which is based on equality and open to everyone who was seriously physically and psychologically injured during the conflict.
“In light of the court ruling, therefore, I am left with no alternative other than to designate a department.
“However, that designation will require the Executive to work together to secure the additional funds from Westminster for the cost of the scheme and get further clarity on eligibility and applications.”
First Minister Arlene Foster said it was a “welcome judgement”.
Writing on social media, she added: “Now time for Sinn Féin to prioritise innocent victims rather than bombers.”
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The ruling came after legal challenges by two victims to the continued impasse around introducing the scheme with an estimated cost of £100m.
Jennifer McNern lost both legs in an IRA bomb attack on the Abercorn Restaurant in Belfast city centre in March 1972.
Proceedings were also brought by Brian Turley, one of the so-called Hooded Men detained and subjected to special interrogation methods by the British military in the early 1970s.
Even though legislation was passed for the pension scheme which should have opened for applications in May, it remains in limbo due to a dispute over eligibility for payments.
Under new guidance anyone convicted of causing serious harm during the Troubles would be ruled out.
Sinn Féin claims the British government policy is discriminatory.
In his determination, Judge McAlinden said: “What is in reality being done is that the Executive Office is deliberately stymieing the implementation of the scheme in order to pressure the secretary of state to make a different scheme which will be substantially directly funded by Westminster ad which will have very different entitlement rules.”
He added: “This is a truly shocking proposition.
“It demonstrates either wilful disregard for the rule of law, or abject ignorance of what the rule of law means in a democratic society.”
The judge expressed hope that the finding of illegality will set in motion a chain of events towards grant funding being provided.
What happens now?
In theory the way is now clear for victims to get their long overdue payments, but it may not be quite that simple.
The Executive Office has one week to appoint the Department of Justice to administer the scheme.
Arlene Foster says she has already spoken to the government about ensuring the payments are made once the back office structure is in place.
But Stormont and Westminster are still at loggerheads about who should pay for the scheme which will run into tens of millions of pounds.
When the money will start to flow is far from clear.
Speaking afterwards, Ms McNern said: “I should never have had to take this case.
“None of us were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were at home with our families. We were at work. We were in a cafe having a coffee. We were coming home after a day out or an evening at the cinema.
“There were people in the wrong place and they catastrophically changed our lives for ever.”
Mr Turley, whose lawyers said has suffered lasting health issues, welcomed the judgement and said there should now be “no excuses” from Ms O’Neill.
“What right has Michelle O’Neill to stop this happening? It is very unprofessional what she has done.
“I am living on a state pension from one week to the next, this pension will help me an awful lot.”
The pension scheme was drawn up in 2019 by the UK government, when the Stormont assembly was not functioning.
The Troubles claimed more than 3,500 lives and the Northern Ireland Office has estimated another 40,000 people were injured.
The scheme aims to provide pension-like payments to victims of the Troubles, every year for the rest of their lives, with payments ranging from £2,000 to £10,000.
Victims will be eligible to apply if they were injured in an incident at any point between 1 January 1966 and 12 April 2010, the date that responsibility for policing and justice was devolved to Stormont.