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No coroner for Kingsmill hearing

Published 23/04/2015

The bullet riddled minibus near Whitecross in South Armagh where 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead
The bullet riddled minibus near Whitecross in South Armagh where 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead

An inquest into an IRA massacre of 10 Protestant workmen has been delayed because no coroner will be available to hear it.

Republicans ambushed a minibus carrying the men at Kingsmill, Co Armagh, in 1976 and shot them dead after checking what religion they were. Victims' families are to launch a High Court judicial review of the alleged "deliberate" failure of the authorities in Northern Ireland to properly resource an inquest into their sectarian deaths.

Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey is retiring later this year and no replacement has been appointed, he told a preliminary hearing of the inquest in Belfast. Once he leaves there could be only one coroner in the country.

Kingsmill is among dozens of inquests dating from the early days of the conflict which face delay because not enough money is available to investigate or there is nobody to oversee fresh hearings.

Mr Leckey said: "I feel for the bereaved families, not exclusively Kingsmill but for other inquests I am involved in. It is a disappointment that is widespread."

An inquest into the loyalist murder of doorman Seamus Dillion in Co Tyrone is also under threat because of lack of resources, a hearing was told today.

Human rights lawyer Kevin Winters represents some of the Kingsmill victims.

He said: "It is farcical to suggest that one coroner can deal with so many legacy cases, it is nonsense."

The Stormont House political agreement signed before Christmas between the five political parties envisaged a system for dealing with legacy inquests but it has been threatened by Sinn Fein's refusal to implement welfare cuts.

Outside the court house, Karen Armstrong, a sister of one of the Kingsmill dead, said: "It is a political difficulty, it is a political problem.

"We are not going to lie down and accept it, we will fight until we get another date and they have to make sure there are enough coroners in Northern Ireland to deal with our and many other cases."

The textile workers were gunned down after an IRA gang stopped their minibus close to the Co Armagh village 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 were shot.

Just one man, Alan Black, survived, despite being hit 18 times.

No one has ever been convicted of the murders. A listing to hold the inquest in June was abandoned because legal matters will take longer than anticipated to complete.

Mr Leckey's retirement is imminent.

He said: "At the minute there are two coroners. Myself, I am almost at the exit door, leaving one in post, and it is a matter for the Department of Justice (DoJ) to resolve.

"I am not in a position to hold the Kingsmill inquest because I will not be in office at the relevant time.

"There is no coroner able to take up these inquests."

The judicial review will be taken against the DoJ and Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) collectively.

Mr Winters said: "It is a disgrace the way the families have been treated, with what many of them believe is the deliberate under-resourcing of the coroner's office."

He added: "It is a collective failing to resource the inquest system and that really is the direct cause of these inquests having to be adjourned."

Mr Dillon, 45, a former paramilitary prisoner and father of three from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone was killed hours after Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader Billy Wright was shot dead inside the Maze prison in December 1997.

At a preliminary hearing barrister Gerry McAlinden QC said one of the two full-time coroners left after Mr Leckey's departure was on long-term sick leave.

"Until the nettle has been grasped and until significant resources are injected into the coronial system to enable the coronial system to properly investigate these deaths the situation unfortunately will mean, if not actual then potential breaches of Article Two (right to life) obligations that lie on the State."

A full inquest hearing had been scheduled to start last December but has been indefinitely delayed.

A Department of Justice spokesman said: "The Department is very mindful of the interests of families who are awaiting inquests into the deaths of loved ones.

"Officials are actively working to ensure that all necessary resources are provided for the conduct of inquests in Northern Ireland. This includes the availability of adequate numbers of coroners and support staff.

"There are currently three full-time coroners in Northern Ireland. In addition, one High Court judge and one County Court judge have also been appointed as coroners."

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