Belfast Telegraph

Ministry's 'contempt' over deaths

The Ministry of Defence has been accused of showing contempt for an inquest investigating the Army killings of 10 people in Belfast.

During a preliminary coroner's court hearing, a lawyer representing families whose loved ones were killed in three days of shooting in the Ballymurphy area in 1971 heavily criticised the MoD for failing to provide files to the court within set timeframes.

Karen Quinlivan's remarks came after the hearing in Belfast was informed there are set to be significant delays in the disclosure of both MoD and police documents related to an episode the bereaved relatives refer to as the Ballymurphy Massacre.

The victims, which included a Catholic priest and mother of eight, died in an Army operation that saw soldiers storm republican strongholds in west Belfast to arrest IRA suspects following the introduction of the controversial state policy of internment without trial.

Coroner Jim Kitson was told the reason for the Police Service of Northern Ireland's disclosure slippage was down to a serious resourcing issue caused by its cost-cutting decision to axe agency workers.

But the court was offered no explanation as to why the MoD had missed a deadline to hand over personnel files of the soldiers involved in the incident to enable lawyers to establish if they had been involved in other 'lethal force incidents' while in service.

Ms Quinlivan QC, representing the majority of the bereaved families, said she was concerned by the PSNI's stance, but said at least the service had attempted to explain itself to the court.

The barrister said it was "entirely unacceptable" that the MoD had apparently not even tried to explain why it had missed a four-week deadline for disclosing the files set down earlier in the autumn.

"The MoD is treating this entire process with contempt and nothing more," she said.

"They haven't complied with the timetable and haven't provided an explanation. The MoD has no explanation for the fact they have apparently done nothing since September. At least the (PSNI) chief constable (George Hamilton) has given us an explanation."

She urged Mr Kitson to order an MoD official to come to court to face questions.

"Someone from the MoD should be directed to attend to explain why they have decided to disregard this process to date, because that's what they have done," she said.

Mr Kitson told a lawyer representing the PSNI and MoD - Dr Tony McGleenan QC - to ask both his clients to outline in full the reasons for delays in disclosures.

Soldiers involved in the incident claimed they had come under attack and had returned fire.

Relatives have long campaigned for an acknowledgement that their loved ones were wrongfully killed.

The new inquest was ordered by Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin in 2011. That move came after a cold case review of the deaths by the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

As well as those shot dead in Ballymurphy, another man died of a heart attack following an alleged violent confrontation with soldiers. The new inquest only covers the deaths caused by gunfire.

As well as the missed deadline in regard to the MoD personnel files, the court earlier heard that anticipated time-scales for the disclosure of police folders related to the case and other military documents had also been knocked back.

Dr McGleenan had explained that the PSNI's decision to end recruitment of agency staff meant that workers deployed with security checking the documents would be leaving post next month.

"There's a lot of personnel leaving post in December," he said.

The lawyer said while new staff had been recruited to do the job they had not yet taken post.

In relation to the additional MoD material, the lawyer said its disclosure was also impacted by the PSNI's internal staffing issue, as some of it had to go through police assessment.

Mr Kitson said he was aware of the resourcing issues within the PSNI but stressed those problems could not be allowed to overly delay coroner's proceedings.

"I appreciate there are issues in terms of staff going, it's in the public domain on a regular basis," he said.

"That's no excuse for not progressing these cases."

The family of the one of the victims, Joseph Murphy, are bidding to have his body exhumed to ascertain if a bullet was left in his body after autopsy.

His relatives contend that the bullet was fired by a soldier through an already open gunshot wound when Mr Murphy was being held in Army custody after sustaining his initial injury.

Mr Kitson said he would make a ruling on whether the exhumation would be permitted at the next preliminary hearing on December 18.

The public gallery of the coroner's court was packed with bereaved relatives for this morning's hearing.

Afterwards, a number of them criticised both the PSNI and MoD.

John Teggart, whose father Danny was killed, said the delays were "totally unacceptable to the families who have suffered enough".

He added: "These documents have been in their possession for many years and this is just another example of the PSNI/MoD dragging their heels and stalling the legal process".

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