NI Executive Office acting unlawfully in delaying introduction of victims compensation scheme

Not unexpectedly, given Mr Justice McAlinden’s comments during the two-day hearing, Belfast High Court has ruled that the NI Executive Office is, indeed, acting unlawfully in failing to implement the victims payment scheme.  Or, rather, the NI deputy First Minister is acting unlawfully

From the summary of judgement [pdf file]

It is incumbent upon the Executive Office to forthwith designate a Department under paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 1 to the Victims’ Payments Regulations 2020 to exercise the administrative functions of the Victims’ Payments Board on the Board’s behalf;

The actions of the Executive Office in deliberately refusing to designate a Department and thus stymieing the implementation of the scheme in order to pressurise the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a different scheme which will be substantially directly funded by Westminster and which will have very different entitlement rules constitutes unlawful action on the part of the Executive Office. The Executive Office has acted unlawfully in deciding to refuse to designate a Department in an effort to have the lawful scheme promulgated in the Victims’ Payments Regulations 2020 replaced by a different scheme. It is clearly unlawful for the Executive Office to deliberately refuse to comply with a legal requirement set out in a legislative scheme promulgated by the Westminster Parliament in order to force changes to that legislative scheme; [added emphasis]

From the Irish Times report

In a scathing judgment delivered in Belfast High Court, Justice McAlinden said the Executive Office was under a “clear, unqualified and unconditional obligation” to designate a Stormont department to take forward the scheme by establishing a victims payment board by May 29th.

The judge said any argument to the contrary was “obtuse, absurd and irrational”.

He dismissed as “nonsense” an Executive Office contention that the court should not involve itself in what it claimed was a political dispute.

The judge said the Executive Office was deliberately stymieing the introduction of the scheme in a bid to pressure Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to change the terms of it.

He said the Executive Office’s stance was “truly shocking” and demonstrated a “wilful disregard” for, or “abject ignorance” of, the rule of law.

Justice McAlinden said Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was the only minister in the Executive Office taking this stance, and highlighted how First Minister Arlene Foster, having initially adopted the same position, had now made clear she was willing to designate a department immediately.

Justice McAlinden gave the Executive Office seven days to respond to the judgment.

And from the BBC report

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.” [added emphasis]

[Or both! – Ed]  Indeed…

The BBC also quotes the relevant lines from the NI deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill’s statement in response to the ruling.  From the BBC report

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.”

And, in the same report, the NI First Minister, the DUP’s Arlene Foster…

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.”

That seems clear enough…