Family fury at inquest delay
A coroner's decision to suspend inquest hearings into a series of controversial killings in Northern Ireland provoked fury among relatives last night.
John Leckey decided to delay the cases after a clash with Attorney General John Larkin QC over whether he can deal with national security concerns raised during the inquests.
Kevin Winters, a lawyer for several of the victims' families, said the development was a backward step.
He said: "It puts the issue of truth recovery in serious unresolved conflict killings back 20 years."
The Attorney General, the Northern Ireland Executive's top legal adviser, referred the cases to the coroner for fresh inquests.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott called on Mr Larkin to consider his position.
The inquest suspensions were announced just as the coroner was preparing to take preliminary hearings into two of the killings, one involving a schoolboy killed by a rubber bullet fired by British troops in West Belfast 40 years ago.
The families are considering a legal challenge in the High Court and the coroner indicated that is where the process could move to next following his intervention.
"It is possible that the orders made by the Attorney General were ultra vires (outside his powers)," he said.
He is to write to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and the Attorney General seeking clarification after receiving an expert legal opinion on the matter.
He told today's hearing in Belfast that Northern Ireland's coroners had arrived at a view that the Attorney General may have overstretched his powers and that this had been confirmed by the independent lawyer.
"Clearly, the Attorney General takes a view as to his jurisdiction and powers which is diametrically opposed," he said.
Mr Larkin's office was established in 2010 but his jurisdiction was restricted, with some areas like national security remaining a matter for the Northern Ireland Secretary, and it is disputed by the coroner whether the Attorney General had the power to order inquests into material touching on national security issues.
Mr Leckey said part of the legislation surrounding his role had been amended without consultation with coroners, who had not been advised of an amendment having been made.
"National security was clearly to be an issue for some (inquests)," he said.
Among inquests suspended was the hearing into the loyalist murder of Gerard Slane in 1988.
Mr Slane, 27, a father-of-three, was shot dead by the loyalist Ulster Defence Association at his home at Waterville Street, west Belfast, on September 23.
His murder led to allegations of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces.
Brian Nelson, a UDA man working for British intelligence, was implicated in the shooting.
Another hearing involved Francis Rowntree, 11, who was hit by a rubber bullet fired in disputed circumstances by British troops during rioting in the lower Falls area of Belfast in April 1972.
Barrister Fiona Doherty, who represented the Slane and Rowntree families at today's hearing, said she was surprised by the announcement.
She told the coroner: "This is a bolt out of the blue for us and for these families who have had this direction in respect of coroners' inquests for quite some time.
"It seems to us to be discourtesy of the highest order that these families expecting an inquest to be held into the death of their loved ones have not been informed that this (arose)."
Around a dozen cases are with the coroner but there are many more with the Attorney General's office awaiting a decision on referral to the coroner.
Inquests into the killing of 10 people by the Army during an attack known to victims' relatives as the Ballymurphy massacre in west Belfast were also suspended today.
They died in August 1971 in the 36 hours after the internment without trial of IRA suspects.
A Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight were among those shot dead.
A statement from the Ballymurphy families said: "We commended the Attorney General for showing leadership and credibility in announcing that the inquests would be reopened.
"We feel that when he considered the facts surrounding the sham inquests which took place 40 years ago his decision was the correct one.
"The families believe that these inquests must be held without delay, with sufficient resources and funding provided to the coroner and the families' legal representatives to ensure that all of the facts are known."
Mr Elliott said the Attorney General should consider his position following his involvement in the investigation by an Assembly committee into the opening of a Marie Stopes sexual health centre in Belfast, his handling of the Peter Hain case and an Austrian adoption challenge.
"The Attorney General is developing an unfortunate habit of becoming the story and I believe that with this latest incident, the time has come for him to consider his position."