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Coroner demands explanation from MoD over delays ahead of inquest

Coroner Paddy McGurgan said he wants a letter from the Crown Solicitor’s Officer by Monday providing answers.

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Belfast Coroner’s Court (Liam McBurney/PA)

Belfast Coroner’s Court (Liam McBurney/PA)

Belfast Coroner’s Court (Liam McBurney/PA)

A coroner in Belfast has expressed frustration with the Ministry of Defence over delays ahead of a fresh inquest into the death of a 10-year-old boy.

Coroner Paddy McGurgan told Belfast Coroner’s Court that red smoke should be coming out of his ears after hearing work on material to be disclosed was being held up over access to a building.

Stephen Geddis was the youngest person to die in Northern Ireland after being struck by a plastic bullet following the incident in west Belfast in 1975.

Mr McGurgan emphasised he wanted to hear the inquest into his death as planned on August 23, adding his time is otherwise booked until 2022.

Barrister Mark Robinson, appearing for the MoD, said they wish to conduct a sensitivity review on material to be disclosed before proposing redactions.

He said this cannot start until March and is likely to take until April to complete.

“We have said the end of April is an estimate given the volume of paper and the current Covid situation.

“It will have escaped no one’s attention that yesterday, 1,725 deaths were recorded… so it is taken very very seriously and access to the building where the work is to be carried out is very tightly controlled,” he said.

“That is placing a burden upon the actual processing of this material.”

Mr Robinson was pressed on why access could not be gained to the building before March.

He was asked: “Where does March come from?

“Is there a Government guidance to this effect?”

Mr Robinson responded: “I will have to explore that to be brutally honest, I’ll check exactly the position but I do understand it may indeed be influenced by current  Government lockdown guidance.”

The coroner queried why the material cannot be scanned and emailed, pointing out “everyone else is working remotely Mr Robinson”.

Mr Robinson said the IT system does not facilitate that and, due to the sensitivity of the material, it must be looked at in the building where it is kept.

The coroner responded: “I am not taken by that argument … I want a written explanation from the Crown Solicitor as to why this can’t be done electronically, and I want this by Monday at 12 noon.

“I am also not satisfied by the excuses being given that this is something to do with the pandemic.

“Everybody else who is a key worker are all coming to their work place under suitable measures.

“I want answers to this conundrum by lunchtime on Monday.

“It just beggars belief quite frankly that there isn’t a digital way to deal with this.

“We’ve all adapted, how the Ministry of Defence can’t adapt to it is beyond me.”

He went on: “It is the MoD who is causing the delay here so it needs to be unblocked.

“In the spirit that I am being told constantly that the MoD want to work with me, lets see that spirit put into action.”

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Michael McElhone holds a photograph of his late brother Paddy McElhone, outside Omagh courthouse after a coroner delivered the findings of an inquest into his death (Brian Lawless/PA)

Michael McElhone holds a photograph of his late brother Paddy McElhone, outside Omagh courthouse after a coroner delivered the findings of an inquest into his death (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Michael McElhone holds a photograph of his late brother Paddy McElhone, outside Omagh courthouse after a coroner delivered the findings of an inquest into his death (Brian Lawless/PA)

The probe is one of dozens of fresh inquests into killings from Northern Ireland’s troubled past to be heard over the next few years.

Mr McGurgan pointed out that a recent probe, into the death of Paddy McElhone in 1974, was “turned around in next to no time”.

“And we’re in the middle of a pandemic so they’ve no excuse whatsoever, it’s been done and there were no roadblocks put in the way at all.”

Pressing Mr Robinson to emphasise to the MoD the need to progress the matter, Mr McGurgan added: “If there was red smoke being able to be seen to come out of my ears at this stage.

“Otherwise what we’ll simply do is I’ll ask for the head of the military to come here and invite him to explain to me why there are all these problems encountered in this inquest.”

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