Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has reluctantly agreed to progress a one-sided compensation scheme for victims of the past conflict after a judge ruled that an ongoing delay was unlawful.
The move came after a High Court judge petulantly accused Ms O’Neill of “abject ignorance” of the law and waved away accusations of political interference against him as “nonsense”.
The payment scheme is in limbo due to a dispute between Sinn Féin and the British government over eligibility criteria that could exclude a large category of former IRA Volunteers and other political prisoners.
It was due to open for applications at the end of May, but little progress has been made due to a failure by the Executive Office (shared by Ms O’Neill and the DUP First Minister Arlene Foster) to nominate a Stormont department to take responsibility for it.
The scheme, which was legislated for at Westminster, will potentially bar thousands of republicans with conflict-related convictions.
The agreement of both ministers is required for the joint Executive Office to act. The judge argued Ms O’Neill is deliberately blocking the introduction of the scheme in a bid to pressure the British Direct Ruler to change the terms of the scheme.
“This is a truly shocking proposition,” said Justice McAlinden. “It demonstrates either wilful disregard for the rule of law or an abject ignorance of what the rule of law means in a democratic society.”
He said any argument that the scheme should not go ahead at this point was “obtuse, absurd and irrational”.
In response, Ms O’Neill accepted the judgement and said she had “no alternative” than to nominate a department to run the pension plan, the next step in the process. But she insisted the scheme was devised by the British government and was “exclusionary, discriminatory and divisive”.
“Its policy intent was and remains to create a hierarchy of victims, and reinforce the British state narrative around the conflict,” she 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.”
“Sinn Féin is also calling for the convening of an Irish and British government summit to progress all outstanding legacy matters to offset further attempts by the British government to bring in new legacy legislation that deviates from the Stormont House Agreement.”