A former police officer selected to trawl through top-secret information on some of Northern Ireland's most controversial killings served with 52 potential inquest witnesses, it has been revealed in court.
He is part of a team made up of four former RUC Special Branch members and an ex-RUC intelligence officer chosen by the chief constable to prepare sensitive documents relating to six alleged shoot-to-kill incidents involving the security forces more than 30 years ago. He has been charged with reading and redacting information from classified material due to be disclosed to the families of those shot dead.
A preliminary hearing at Belfast's Old Town Hall also heard that two other members of the research team served with 10 potential witnesses; another worked alongside 21 potential witnesses; and a fifth knew one potential witness.
Barrister Karen Quinlivan QC, who is representing relatives of those killed, described it as "breathtaking" that police were investigating police. "They served alongside each other for years and presumably had confidence in their abilities. This is not only institutional bias but actual bias," she said.
Ms Quinlivan said ongoing problems with disclosure meant the process had been "held up" and "dragged out" beyond expectation. She also claimed the families had very little confidence in the disclosure process. "We remain extremely concerned about the personalities involved in this case," added the lawyer.
Barrister Fiona Doherty, who is also acting for some of the next of kin, raised concerns around delays with disclosure. "This is a serious issue. It is an issue that is going to have to be dealt with sooner rather than later," she said.
The case involves six people shot dead by the security forces during the 1980s amid claims there was a deliberate intention to kill them. IRA men Sean Burns, Eugene Toman and Gervaise McKerr were killed near Lurgan, Co Armagh, in November 1982.
Catholic teenager Michael Tighe was shot dead by police at a hay shed near Craigavon, Co Armagh, in November 1982 and suspected INLA men Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew were fatally wounded near Armagh in December of the same year.
Tony McGleenan QC, barrister for the PSNI, described the scale of the disclosure as vast. He said up to 82 boxes of material containing tens of thousands of pages had to be considered by counsel, the chief constable and the minister for justice before being handed to the coroner for consideration of relevance. The next preliminary hearing is due to take place in July.
An investigation into whether police set out to kill was carried out in the years after the incidents by former Greater Manchester Police deputy chief constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson of West Yorkshire Police. The Stalker and Sampson reports were long classified top secret but the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) finally handed over edited versions to the coroner in 2010 after a lengthy legal battle. The reports were then passed to lawyers for the families.