The order in which dozens of fresh inquests into killings from Northern Ireland’s troubled past will be heard has been announced.
Presiding Coroner Mrs Justice Keegan said the decision on which of the cases will be heard first had been one which she had given “very anxious consideration”.
Mrs Justice Keegan emphasised that no legacy inquest is “more important or of greater priority than any other”.
The senior judge also cautioned that the outstanding cases represent a “very small proportion” of the overall number of Troubles-related deaths, and pointed out that a coroner has no control over which deaths are reported or referred for coronial investigation.
The Department of Justice plans to release £55 million over six years to deal with 52 legacy inquests involving 93 deaths between the 1970s and 2000.
Mrs Justice Keegan held a series of brief preliminary hearings over three weeks in the autumn to assess the state of readiness of cases to help her determine how they should be sequenced.
On Wednesday, the public gallery of Belfast Coroner’s Court, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice, was filled to capacity with bereaved families as Mrs Justice Keegan announced the planned sequencing.
I want to offer you the reassurance that I have not undertaken this task lightlyMrs Justice Keegan
The first three inquests to be held between April 2020 and April 2021 will be the deaths of 10-year-old Stephen Geddis, who was hit by a plastic bullet in 1975, Neil McConville, who was shot near Lisburn in April 2003, and Thomas Friel, who was hit by a rubber bullet in Creggan in 1973.
Inquests into the killings of GAA official Sean Brown in Bellaghy in 1997 and Patrick McElhone from Pomeroy, who had special needs, in August 1974 are scheduled for the second quarter of the year.
Inquests into the deaths of Gareth Paul O’Connor, who disappeared in 2003 before his body was found in Newry canal two years later, and teenager Leo Norney in west Belfast in 1975 will take place in the third quarter.
The final inquests to be listed for year one include the killings of William Fleming and Daniel Doherty in Londonderry in 1984, Thomas Mills in west Belfast in 1972, and teenager Patrick Crawford in the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1975.
Mrs Justice Keegan also announced that she plans to link a number of other outstanding deaths into groupings, including those attributed to Loyalist paramilitaries in the Mid Ulster area between 1990 and 2000 as well as deaths where it appears there is a link to uncover soldiers.
She told the court she recognised that some people would be left disappointed but offered reassurance that the remaining cases will be kept under review.
“I want to offer you the reassurance that I have not undertaken this task lightly. I give you the commitment that my judicial colleagues and I will do everything in our power to complete legacy inquests within the five-year timeframe,” she added.