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Tackling questions about violent past helps Northern Ireland move on - judge

Published 29/01/2016

Some cases could take years to proceed to full inquest, the review has heard
Some cases could take years to proceed to full inquest, the review has heard

Solving controversial questions about Northern Ireland's violent past will help the country move on, a judge said.

Lord Justice Weir has concluded a two-week review of dozens of the most highly-disputed legacy cases which are awaiting inquests decades after the killings took place.

They span allegations of security force misinformation to frame the IRA for bombings, state collusion in loyalist murders, inept police investigations, and IRA men shot dead by the army as part of a claimed policy of shooting to kill in which civilians were killed in the cross-fire.

Some cases could take years to proceed to full inquest, the review has heard, while others could be ready to begin within a year. One inquest could be linked to more than 100 other murders.

Lack of money to search for and process documents has been a constant refrain from lawyers for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and watchdogs which scrutinise them as well as the Ministry of Defence, and Lord Justice Weir has posed serious questions to the Government about its resourcing of investigations into past murders.

He said: "The purpose of this was to try and break the logjam and move these cases along, which is in everyone's interests, not just the next of kin but the people of Northern Ireland who want to see this chapter of life dealt with properly and put to rest."

He addressed the widow of a Catholic police officer - father-of-eight Sergeant Joseph Campbell - who was shot dead as he closed a police station in 1977.

"You have had a long wait and I hope we can do something to move this on because it has gone on a long time - too long."

A new structured approach to investigating Northern Ireland's contested past - and the release of money to pay for it - has been stalled by a disagreement between Sinn Fein and the British Government over its refusal to disclose information relating to national security.

The state argues that it has a duty to protect life, including those secret agents who informed it of the workings of paramilitaries and may have helped save countless lives but who have also been implicated in the most murky of killings.

Republicans contend that, more than 20 years after armed groups first declared a ceasefire, the Government owes a duty of full candour on its own role during three decades of conflict in which more than 3,600 were killed and thousands of others injured.

The head of Northern Ireland's judiciary, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, has asked Judge Weir to assess more than 50 stalled cases, relating to almost 100 deaths. He is determining why they are still stuck in the coronial system, in some instances almost 45 years later, and identifying a sequence for hearing them.

Lord Justice Weir thanked lawyers for their support and said a relatively small group was attempting to shoulder the burden.

"Everyone has co-operated very well and in some cases had to withstand a fair bit of heat from the battle. They have done it with good grace."

He said his job of compiling a report for Sir Declan had been made much easier by that co-operation.

In some cases witnesses are dead or difficult to trace; documents about police investigations are missing; and forensics testing of weapons in the 1970s was archaic compared with modern methods.

Many of the delays have surrounded disclosure of documents, from an extensive police archive or from myriad MoD records.

Police have a team of 20 working on finding and screening material and have called for urgent prioritisation of cases. Police Ombudsman lawyer Seamus McElroy, whose office scrutinises police, illustrated the difficulty of preparing for complex matters.

"My disclosure team is me and half a secretary."

The review ended with the case of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Sgt Campbell, who was shot dead as he closed Cushendall RUC station, which occupied a picturesque part of the County Antrim coastline.

His son, Tommy Campbell, said: "We are extremely happy that the case has gotten some impetus and that the judge has asked the Coroner's Court to pursue the Ministry of Defence for information and any records that they have.

"It is the first step in a long ladder."

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