Belfast Telegraph

I'm embarrassed by inquest delays, top coroner says

BY MICHAEL McHUGH

Northern Ireland's senior coroner has expressed embarrassment at the time some inquests are taking – and said those into the London bombings of 2005 had been dealt with quicker.

Full hearings into the deaths of republicans and police killed in disputed circumstances in Mid Ulster 30 years ago may not begin for months or even years, lawyers told a Coroner's Court yesterday.

Delays have dogged the disclosure of documents used in deciding which witnesses to call or issues to address.

The Coroner's Service is still awaiting a separate decision from Stormont on funding for an investigator to consider voluminous files dating back decades.

Senior coroner John Leckey said: "Time is passing on and when I look back at how long ago I started this process, it is 2007, and we are seven years on.

"Looking at how difficult inquests have been held in England I feel embarrassed: the London bombings, Princess Diana, we all know these big inquests. They have dealt with similar issues and the inquests have been held."

The Coroner's Court in Belfast was considering legal matters surrounding inquests into nine deaths affected by alleged security services' shoot-to-kill policies. They included Gervaise McKerr, an IRA man shot by a special RUC unit in 1982.

The PSNI has already come in for heavy criticism for protracted delays in disclosing documents linked to the inquests. They include files from the long-classified investigations into the killings by Greater Manchester Police Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson of West Yorkshire Police.

Mr Leckey's lawyer, Frank O'Donohue QC, said it was unsatisfactory that the exhaustive disclosure process involving security checks would not be complete until the end of this year.

A senior police officer at the rank of Assistant Chief Constable could be called to give evidence about the delay.

Mr O'Donohue said: "Consideration is going to have to be given to the need to call witnesses from the PSNI to account for what is a wholly unsatisfactory state of play."

He said officials from Stormont's Justice Department could also be called to account over delays in the appointment of an investigator to help the coroner pursue evidential leads.

He added: "Unfortunately we seem to be very far away from the imminent appointment of an investigator."

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