Legacy inquests into controversial Troubles killings could be completed within five years if the Government provides enough resources, the head of the judiciary has said.
Extra investigators, lawyers and administrators need to be paid for and an electronic system created to manage vast amounts of documents, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan added.
Dozens of the most highly-disputed cases from the Troubles are awaiting inquests decades after the killings took place.
They span allegations of security force misinformation to frame the IRA for bombings, state collusion in loyalist murders, inept police investigations, and IRA men shot dead by the army as part of a claimed policy of shooting to kill in which civilians were killed in the crossfire.
Sir Declan said: “If we are given the necessary resources and obtain the full cooperation of the relevant statutory agencies I am confident that it should be possible to hear all the remaining legacy cases within five years.”
A deal hammered out between Northern Ireland politicians and the British and the Irish governments before Christmas omitted a settlement on historical cases.
If a hold up between the British Government and Sinn Fein surrounding national security is resolved £30 million a year will be available for all matters touching on the conflict for five years, including a review leading to possible prosecutions.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has pledged to consider releasing some money earmarked for the past early to boost the coroner’s system.
A business plan for a dedicated legacy inquest unit is to be drawn up by the judiciary which will be submitted to Stormont.
Legacy cases could begin being heard in September. Only 13 have been delivered in the past decade.
More than 50 stalled inquests relate to almost 100 deaths.
Sir Declan said: “I sincerely believe that if we are now in a position to make meaningful progress on this long-standing issue, and that if we do, it will provide a signal of hope to all victims and survivors that the remaining issues involved in dealing with the past can finally be resolved.”
He recognised that different victims’ families had different expectations from new inquests and acknowledged that many relatives were now dead.
“I feel a sense of deep regret that that has occurred.
“I hope that whenever the families see what we are doing, as distinct from what we are promising, that that would cause them to have confidence in our ability to deliver.”