Asbestos victims campaigning for compensation today received a huge boost as the North's Assembly members united to demand more money for those ‘‘breathing in death’’.
A motion urging proper civil justice for those afflicted by a disease that kills 5,000 people in the UK and 90 in Northern Ireland every year received unanimous backing among MLAs.
Calling on all sides to back him, John Kelly (Sinn Fein, Mid Ulster) said it was time to right a grave wrong.
He said: ‘‘To think that even innocent children hugging their fathers coming home from work are now affected by asbestosis.
‘‘It has been a silent and invisible killer which lies dormant for up to 40 years and then strikes in the form of terrifying and painful illness.’’
The debate came just days after a landmark House of Lords ruling opened up wider possibilities for individuals to claim against companies.
Insurance firms could now face bills of up to £8 billion across the UK.
In Northern Ireland, some 3,000 workers employed by Harland & Wolff shipbuilders prior to its privatisation in 1989 are thought to have been hit by asbestosis.
Up to £190m (€301m) of public money could be paid out over the next 50 years to employees seeking compensation.
Mr Kelly said the issue of ‘‘breathing in death’’ had been covered up for years.
Demanding compensation even after victims die, he added: ‘‘Those who are left behind, the wives and children ought to remain the beneficiaries of that compensation.’’
Sean Neeson (Alliance, East Antrim), who co-tabled the motion, insisted money must be paid out sooner.
‘‘There is no point in getting them damages just before they die,’’ he said.
‘‘If they die the widow and the family have to carry on the case and that adds to the grieving process.’’
He also warned that the death toll is set to soar.
‘‘At the moment it is estimated that at least 90 people die each year in Northern Ireland,’’ he said.
‘‘If we’re looking at a situation whereby the figures will double in great Britain there will be a similar trend established here in Northern Ireland.’’
Esmond Birnie (UUP, South Belfast) chairman of the Employment and Learning committee urged the Executive to settle compensation claims without delay.
‘‘The Department of Employment must do all in its powers to ensure the people are quickly compensated for in the case of this terrible disease,’’ he said.
Employment and Learning Minister Carmel Hanna (SDLP, South Belfast) told the Assembly she would have to give the Lords’ ruling close scrutiny.
Referring to her announcement last month to extend a workers’ compensation scheme, she said: ‘‘My department, along with other relevant departments, will however, need to examine carefully the detailed reasons for the decision of the House of Lords when the full decision is published.
‘‘We can then determine whether any further action in relation to the Workers’ Compensation Scheme might be necessary.’’
But Mrs Hanna insisted the position about who is responsible for providing compensation to sufferers is clear.
‘‘It rests with the employers and their insurers,’’ she said.