Confusion over legal representation for anonymous witnesses was today blamed for a fresh hold-up in the long delayed inquest of an IRA man shot dead by police 17 years ago.
Administrative oversights in processing anonymity requests from security force members due to give evidence on the death of Pearse Jordan were responsible for the latest postponement, a preliminary hearing was told.
The probe into the controversial shooting in west Belfast had been due to start in January, but in a city court this morning coroner Brian Sherrard admitted this timeframe could no longer be met.
Mr Sherrard was presiding over the case for the first time, following the decision of Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey to stand down from proceedings earlier this month after Jordan's family raised concerns about his handling of the inquest.
In opting to step aside, Mr Leckey's lawyers stressed he did not accept any allegations of bias made against him by the relatives.
Jordan, 23, was shot dead by the RUC in disputed circumstances after a car collision on the Falls Road in November 1992.
Coroner Sherrard heard that uncertainty over which solicitor represented each of the 13 police officers and five soldiers due to testify at the inquest had resulted in some of them not filing applications for their names to be withheld.
It emerged that two policemen who have since left the service - including the sergeant who fired the shot that killed Mr Jordan - have not engaged any lawyer and, as such, no request for anonymity had been made on their behalf.
Mr Sherrard said he felt compelled to initiate security service threat assessments for those two individuals in the meantime in order to determine for himself whether revealing their names would put their lives at risk.
The coroner was told that some of the other officers had signalled their intention to lodge applications but had not yet done so. A number of the requests are being made at the behest of the Chief Constable.
Noting that it would take at least 18 weeks to process the outstanding bids, Mr Sherrard said he had no alternative but to put back the start date to next April.
"There's already been an inordinate delay in listing this matter and I fully appreciate the distress this will cause the Jordan family and the other participants who have an interest in this matter," he said.
"It's not a desirable situation to be in."
Barry Macdonald QC, representing the Jordans, expressed his concern at the further delay.
"The family is going to receive this news with some dismay because we had been told that January would be the start date," he said.
Mr Sherrard explained that it took at least 12 weeks for the security services to assess the threat an individual would be under if their name was revealed. That report would then have to be circulated among the various legal representatives before he could begin to consider whether he would grant anonymity, the coroner added.
"We have to be realistic," he said.
"I think there's at least an 18-week period between the police submitting these (applications) and me being able to say yes or no in terms of anonymity.
"A more realistic date to aim for would be in and around the end of April."
Mr Sherrard stressed that anonymity would only be granted in exceptional circumstances as the principle of open justice depended on the identity of witnesses being disclosed.