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Kingsmill survivor in action threat

Published 30/06/2015

Alan Black, the sole survivor of a sectarian massacre in 1976 near the Co Armagh village of Kingsmill, outside Belfast Coroner's Court
Alan Black, the sole survivor of a sectarian massacre in 1976 near the Co Armagh village of Kingsmill, outside Belfast Coroner's Court
Alan Black was the only survivor of the 1976 attack near the Co Armagh village of Kingsmill

The sole survivor of a sectarian massacre of 10 protestant workmen has threatened legal action over the failure to appoint a new coroner to hear a fresh inquest into the murders.

A number of relatives bereaved in the 1976 attack near the Co Armagh village of Kingsmill joined Alan Black in issuing the ultimatum to Stormont's Department of Justice.

Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner John Leckey has been presiding over preliminary proceedings ahead of the new inquest being heard, but he is due to retire in the autumn.

No other coroner has been assigned to the case, despite repeated calls from Mr Leckey for Justice Minister David Ford to find a successor.

During Mr Leckey's final preliminary hearing in the case before retirement, a lawyer representing Mr Black and the family of victim John McConville warned judicial review proceedings would be initiated if no action is taken.

Mr Black attended the hearing in Belfast Coroner's Court and afterwards he insisted the families would not accept a further hold-up in their long battle for an inquest.

"Over the years it's been one obstacle put in our way after another and it's all coming from the Department of Justice," he said.

"David Ford wants to kick us into the long grass again. We are not going. We are just going to refuse to go into the long grass again. So we will do whatever is necessary with the legal people and hopefully get a result then."

The textile workers were gunned down after a masked gang stopped their minibus close to Kingsmill as they were travelling home from work.

They were forced to line up alongside the van and ordered to divulge their religion. The only Catholic worker was told to flee the scene while the 11 remaining workers were shot.

Mr Black survived despite being hit 18 times.

No-one has ever been convicted of the murders, which have been widely blamed on the IRA even though the organisation never admitted responsibility.

There is currently no plan in place to appoint a new senior coroner. Mr Leckey's retirement would leave only two full-time coroners in post, one of whom is currently off work on long-term sick leave.

Mr Ford has announced plans to potentially utilise county court judges to act as coroners in the future and there are also proposals to appoint a number of deputy coroners. However, no concrete steps have yet been announced, despite Mr Leckey's retirement only weeks away.

Mr McConville's sister Karen Armstrong also attended this morning's hearing. She echoed Mr Black's disappointment.

"We are sorely disappointed again that still no coroner has been put in place and we are now in a position where we have been speaking to our legal team and we have no other option other than there will be legal action taken against the Department of Justice (DoJ)," she said.

"It is really pathetic. They have known that Mr Leckey is going retire and they have not still put anyone in and that is very, very disappointing for us as the families.

"These people were murdered almost 40 years ago and we are still fighting and we will continue to do so still, but we are still sorely disappointed."

After a long campaign for justice by the families, a new inquest into the Kingsmill massacre was ordered by Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin in 2013.

During today's preliminary hearing, Eugene McKenna, representing Mr Black and the McConville family, told Mr Leckey there was a legislative power that enabled Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan to intervene and, in consultation with the DoJ, to appoint a new coroner, potentially a High Court judge.

Mr Leckey said he was not aware of the power ever having been exercised in such circumstances.

Stressing the need for a new coroner to be appointed as soon as possible, Mr McKenna added: "It's certainly the families' intention to bring proceedings should there not be some sort of satisfactory indication."

Mr Leckey noted that many more legacy inquests were being impacted by the uncertainty.

At present, there are 53 outstanding legacy inquests relating to 86 deaths.

The coroner acknowledged the concern of the families and said he continued to flag the issue up with authorities.

"I sense families will leave this morning and may have anxiety that because another coroner has not been appointed that that will result in a delay to holding the inquest," he said.

"But myself and my legal team can only do so much in alerting those who have the power to appoint a coroner."

The next preliminary hearing has been set for September 11 but Mr Leckey warned that it would not go ahead if a new coroner had not been appointed to the case.

Newry and Armagh Stormont Assembly member Danny Kennedy joined family members in court today.

"The families remain frustrated at the fact that no new coroner has been appointed to replace John Leckey who is retiring, that is an unsatisfactory situation," he said afterwards.

Mr Kennedy, a minister in the Stormont Executive, said he had raised the issue directly with Sir Declan and Mr Ford. He claimed Sir Declan was "in the process" of appointing a High Court judge.

"That needs to happen as quickly as possible," he added.

Another source of concern emerging during the preliminary process has been delays around securing police files held in the Republic of Ireland.

The murders involved a cross-border element, with the vehicle used by the killers stolen and then dumped in Co Louth.

The disclosure issue has been raised at the highest political level, with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny pledging that the Garda documents would be made available to the inquest.

Mr Leckey was today told that a first "slim" folder had now been passed to the court.

More documents are anticipated to be disclosed over the summer, the coroner was told.

In response to the concerns raised at this morning's hearing, a spokesman for the Justice Minister said: "The Department of Justice fully appreciates the concerns of the families who are awaiting inquests into the deaths of loved ones.

"The Coroners Service currently has three full-time coroners, including the senior coroner. The Justice Minister also recently approved the appointment of an additional county court judge to create additional judicial capacity for legacy cases.

"The assignment of a coroner to hear inquests is currently the responsibility of the senior coroner and will become the responsibility of the Lord Chief Justice when he assumes the Presidency of the Coroners' Courts."

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