Police apologise over files delay
Police deeply regret a seven year delay in disclosing top-secret files on deaths linked to an alleged security force shoot-to-kill policy, a coroner's court has heard.
Drew Harris who was appointed as Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Deputy Chief Constable last week, was summoned to Belfast's Royal Courts of Justice to explain why it has taken so long to hand over state files linked to nine deaths during the early 1980s.
He said: "It is a matter of regret. It is a matter of great regret that this has taken as long as it has.
"We are conscious of family members and the service we wish to supply in terms of supporting the coroner in this."
The cases involve six people, including IRA men and a Catholic teenager, who were shot dead by the security forces around Lurgan and Armagh in 1982 amid claims there was a deliberate intention to kill them.
Senior Coroner John Leckey is also examining the deaths of three Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers who died in a bomb blast in Lurgan weeks earlier, an attack allegedly carried out by the IRA men who were subsequently gunned down - and therefore seen as a potential motivation for the claimed shoot-to-kill policy.
Mr Leckey has repeatedly expressed concern at the long-running delay and warned that the inquests may not be able to proceed if there is insufficient disclosure of state files.
In a strongly worded letter to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers the coroner also cautioned the Government that continuing failure to adequately resource inquests into historic Troubles killings could leave it in breach of international law.
The delay has been blamed on the requirement to security-vet top-secret investigations into the killings that were carried out by Greater Manchester Police Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson, of West Yorkshire Police, in the 1980s but never published.
More than 80 boxes of classified information is being held at a PSNI facility in Seapark, Carrickfergus, Co Antrim. Access to the documents which include press cuttings and publications is fiercely restricted.
Frank O'Donoghue QC, counsel for the Coroner's Service said labelling all of the information top secret had made the system cumbersome and dramatically slowed things down.
Giving evidence from the witness box, Mr Harris said the PSNI had vastly underestimated the scale and complexity of the disclosure process but insisted that timelines had been given to the Coroner's Service in good faith.
"We have entered into this in good faith and are happy to co-operate and resolve all these points," he said.
Mr Harris told the court that police were committed to finishing disclosure by the end of December and said despite budget cuts of more £135 million last year and a further £50 million this year, resources dedicated to legacy inquests would be protected.
"We are committed to the December 2014 deadline and the resources which have been working with the legacy support branch will continue," he said.
Redaction of material is carried out if there is a risk to a someone's life or if there is a threat of serious injury should their identity be made public. The process is usually applied to police informants, undercover detectives, members of the security services and military personnel.
The court heard how three former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) special branch officers had been recruited to the legacy support unit to carry out the complex vetting process.
It was claimed they held the necessary expertise for trawling through historical files.
"There are nuances within them which they can see that others cannot," Mr Harris said.
The Deputy Chief Constable, himself a former RUC officer, rejected claims there could be a conflict of interest insisting that the rigorous checks and balances which run from PSNI's senior legal adviser, to the Chief Constable and on to the Justice Minister ensured the integrity of the system.
"They themselves (legacy support unit staff) are not decision makers. They are gatekeepers," he said.
Mr O'Donoghue said the Coroner had only found out about the role of the former special branch officers at a late stage.
However, Mr Harris rejected claims the PSNI had deliberately hushed the matter up.
"I refute that we've been in any way found out on this."
The hearing has been adjourned until early November when Mr Harris will be recalled to give more evidence.
Barry Macdonald QC, who is representing some of the victims' families, said that when the hearing resumes he would have questions about legacy information seminars and the classification of material which was in the public domain.
He said the matters could not be dealt with through correspondence.
Mr Macdonald said: "We have moved to the process of oral examination because the written process was so protracted, ineffective and unsatisfactory."
Karen Quinlivan QC, who is also representing relatives of those who were shot, said oral hearings were the best way of dealing with issues around transparency.
She intends to raise questions about inconsistencies in the redaction process, the court heard. "We are asking for an hour," said Ms Quinlivan.