Belfast Telegraph

Identity of prison officer granted anonymity at inquest 'is widely known' - court hears

By Alan Erwin

The identity of a high-ranking prison officer granted anonymity at an inquest for a man who died in jail already is widely known, the High Court heard today.

Lawyers for the mother of James McDonnell argued that the warder has given television interviews as part of a significant public profile.

Mr McDonnell, a 36-year-old Antrim man, suffered a fatal heart attack in HMP Maghaberry in March 1996.

A short time earlier officers had subjected him to a control and restraint procedure, with a post mortem identifying neck injuries.

His mother Elizabeth has brought a legal challenge in a bid to have the prison officers involved publicly named. 

She is seeking a judicial review of decisions to maintain anonymity and screening for those who testified last year at the inquest into her son's death. 

Identities were withheld on the basis of the risk to their lives.

A jury found neck compression and the initial restraint contributed to the subsequent fatal heart attack.

Senior coroner John Leckey has referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate whether any criminal offence was committed.

But even though Mrs McDonnell is satisfied with the outcome of the tribunal, she wants the granting of anonymity overturned.

According to her lawyers there is no justification for not naming them, arguing that some are still serving and dealing with convicted criminals and dissident republicans who know who they are.

Karen Quinlivan QC told the court today that the identity of the witnesses, referred to as Officer H, has been known to the family and various legal representatives for years.

She said: "As a result of our knowledge of the name we were able to identify him as a high-ranking officer with a significant public profile which included appearances on television in his role as a prison officer."

Amid her examination of his background counsel for the Prison Service, Patrick Lyttle QC raised concerns that the details being disclosed in open court would reveal who the officer is.

Mr Justice Treacy also warned that she was "coming perilously close" to identifying him.

The judge stressed that a press ban would not prevent any other members of the public listening to the case from "joining up the dots".

He told her: "I don't know why you are anxious to get into the detail of this material when the point you're attempting to make simply is that this man's name is in the public domain."

But Ms Quinlivan responded at one stage: "In a way I'm presenting this case in secret by not opening the facts."

The hearing continues.

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