Cost to taxpayer 'could rival Bloody Sunday'

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Ministers' promises yesterday to save public expense by controlling the cost of the four Northern Ireland inquiries had a familiar ring to them.

Ministers' promises yesterday to save public expense by controlling the cost of the four Northern Ireland inquiries had a familiar ring to them.

In 1997 Labour had hoped Lord Saville of Newdigate's investigation into the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry in 1972 would last a year and cost no more than £10m. But as the inquiry enters its seventh year the final figure is estimated to be £155m. Lawyers suggested yesterday that the new inquiries could cost as much.

The bill for legal fees in the Bloody Sunday inquiry stands at £67m, and, in an attempt to control the cost of the new inquiries, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, has proposed capping lawyers' fees.

But it was not clear what would happen if a particular party to one of the inquiries requested a barrister who was unwilling to work under such terms. Indeed the first legal fees could well be incurred settling this particular question in the High Court. The Bloody Sunday inquiry was beset by similar kinds of satellite litigation over questions such as anonymity and disclosure.

Bills for four senior judges, their teams of administrators and security arrangements could easily total £10m before a single piece of evidence has been heard. Given the troubles of the Bloody Sunday inquiry and a general judicial wariness of public inquiries, financial incentives will play a key role in the recruitment of the judges.

Lord Hutton's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly showed how a judicial inquiry could be completed in a relatively short period. But the judge had a narrow remit and was investigating events that were relatively recent. The new inquiries will be gathering evidence and testimonies about events that took place as long ago as the 1980s.

Lembit Opik, a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, asked Mr Murphy if intelligence personnel and other witnesses would be granted anonymity or immunity from prosecution, as in the Saville inquiry. He wanted to know what plans there were to ensure "closure" for other families who had suffered similar loss and what kind of ceiling would be put on spending. Mr Murphy said the powers of the inquiries would be "exactly the same" as those of Saville.

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