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Further delay to 1971 Harry Thornton inquest after witnesses come forward

Published 02/09/2015

Coroner John Leckey said he hoped the Harry Thornton inquest could be held in November
Coroner John Leckey said he hoped the Harry Thornton inquest could be held in November

A long-awaited inquest into the shooting of a man outside a Belfast police station over 40 years ago has been delayed because key witnesses have come forward.

Two soldiers who could hold crucial evidence about the death of Henry Thornton are willing to co-operate with a new inquest, a coroners court has heard.

A hearing for the 28-year-old labourer from Crossmaglen, Co Armagh was scheduled to take place next month but may not be heard until mid November.

A lawyer for the Coroners Service said: "It may be overly ambitious to say we could meet that October date."

Mr Thornton was shot in the head after his van backfired outside a police station on Springfield Road in 1971.

His death, at the height of the Troubles, sparked serious rioting.

Barrister Neil Fox said the Thornton family would agree to have the soldiers' identity protected in a bid to expedite the case.

He said: "My concern is there is going to be further slippage. I would much rather have this inquest heard albeit with anonymity and screening rather than have it put back further."

One of the soldiers, known as C, had been in a sangar overlooking the scene and recorded hearing shots. He also recorded seeing a weapon in the front seat of Mr Thornton's car, the court was told.

The other, given the cipher X, is believed to have been asleep on the second floor of the station when he heard loud bangs.

Three other military witnesses, known as B, D and E, have still not been identified.

Mark Robinson, representing the Ministry of Defence (MoD), opposed fixing a timetable because efforts to trace them were not yet complete.

He said: "I would not want for this matter to move forward at great momentum until November and the MoD come forward and say they have not concluded with their inquiries and then we get into the blame game."

However Mr Fox said the case should proceed.

"They (MoD) have had the best part of a year. I do not think a further week or two is going to make much difference."

Coroner John Leckey said best endeavours should be made to meet the November deadline.

He said: "I really think these inquests, because of the vintage of them, we do not have time unless they are held everyone, sadly, will be deceased or their health would be such that they would not be able to participate in the hearing.

"There are pros and cons but, I am in favour of best endeavours being made to have this inquest listed before a coroner towards the end of November."

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