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Judge warns over Troubles inquests delays

Published 20/01/2016

Police inspecting the scene at The Glengannon Hotel, near Dungannon where Seamus Dillon, was gunned down (PA/file)
Police inspecting the scene at The Glengannon Hotel, near Dungannon where Seamus Dillon, was gunned down (PA/file)

A senior judge has questioned the commitment of parties involved in outstanding Troubles inquests in Northern Ireland, insisting a culture of serial postponements must end.

Lord Justice Weir is conducting an intensive review exercise of 56 long-delayed cases, covering 95 deaths, still locked in the region's coronial system.

The stalled inquests include killings carried out by both paramilitaries and security forces - many involve claims of collusion or state wrongdoing.

Almost half of the cases date back more than 40 years.

On the third day of the two-week review, the judge expressed frustration that many inquests had been previously listed for full hearing only to suffer postponement after postponement.

The time taken by the police to security-vet and disclose classified case files has been highlighted as a main cause of delay.

"The system used in the past of fixing dates for inquests in the hope that people will pull stops out to get ready for the given date hasn't worked," said Lord Justice Weir.

He considered this "unusual" and noted that parties involved in criminal trials did usually manage to stick to hearing dates.

"That sense of commitment and urgency seems to have been absent," he added.

"Dates have come and gone and families have been disappointed on successive occasions and we have to put a stop to that."

While police commanders have argued that they are not properly resourced to conduct the mammoth disclosure task, some bereaved families have accused the police of deliberately obstructing some of the probes.

Lord Justice Weir made his remarks during a review hearing for the case of murdered doorman Seamus Dillon.

Mr Dillon, 45, was gunned down outside the Glengannon Hotel in Dungannon, Co Tyrone in December 1997.

The former paramilitary prisoner and father-of-three from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, was murdered hours after Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader Billy Wright was shot dead inside the Maze prison.

The killing was believed to have been a sectarian revenge attack carried out by Wright's associates.

Mark Mulholland QC, representing Mr Dillon's widow Martina, said the case clearly involved allegations of state collusion.

As Mrs Dillon watched from the public gallery at Laganside courts in Belfast, Judge Weir said a claim that a senior police officer warned some businesses in Dungannon of an imminent attack, but not the proprietor of the now-closed Glengannon, would be explored when the inquest was eventually listed.

The review hearing was also told that letters sent to a number of people originally considered suspects in the shooting, asking them to co-operate with the inquest, had been met with negative responses.

Noting an indication from legal parties that the case could potentially be listed within the next year, the judge urged lawyers to work hard to ensure it does progress to hearing as soon as possible.

During a separate hearing into the death of Francis Bradley in 1986, the judge said the State was obligated under human rights legislation to ensure it was adequatley resourced for the inquest process.

The 20-year-old's death in Castledawson is shrouded in controversy over allegations that the military were operating a shoot to kill policy at the time.

However, an inquest has been delayed by resourcing issues at the Coroners Service and Ministry of Defence, it was claimed.

Judge Weir said: "It is not a coroner who has obligations to fulfil under Article 2 (of the Human Rights Convention) but it is the State.

"Just as the coroner needs to be adequately resourced so do the police and Army - that's the State."

He said political leaders had, to date, been unable to find another mechanism to deal with controversial long-running cases.

"This is not a problem for the Coroners Service. This is a problem for Government," the judge added.

After the short hearing at Laganside court complex, solicitor Fearghal Shiels, representing the Bradley family, hit out at the delays.

He said: "The MoD with their infinite resources have abjectly failed to progress this inquest since specific requests were made to them concerning disclosure some 18 months ago."

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