Coroner demands police explanation
Northern Ireland's highest ranking police officer has been summoned to court to explain why a crucial report on the murder of a GAA official almost 18 years ago has been withheld from an inquest.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable George Hamilton has been ordered to appear before senior coroner John Leckey on Friday to clarify the decision and explain other delays.
Mr Leckey said: "I want chapter and verse."
The order was made during a preliminary hearing into the death of Sean Brown who was killed by loyalists in May 1997.
Mr Brown, 61, was abducted and shot after locking up a GAA club in Bellaghy, Co Londonderry.
No-one has ever been charged with the killing.
A full inquest has been scheduled to start in March but the case could be de-railed because of an ongoing dispute over the disclosure of an un-published Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report, the court was told.
Mr Leckey said "steps would be taken" to compel Mr Hamilton or another senior PSNI representative to attend the court.
He added: "They will have to make themselves available.
"This is not a throw-away remark from me.
"This is a directive from a senior coroner and should be treated with respect."
The hearing at Mays Chambers, Belfast, heard that three issues were causing the current logjam but the major stumbling block was the PSNI's decision not to disclose the HET paperwork.
Gerry McAlinden QC, barrister for the Coroners Service said: "The chief constable takes the view that the HET report cannot be provided in its present form because it has not been quality assured."
Mr McAlinden said it was "not unreasonable" to expect a senior officer to provide an explanation.
"I think it is important that people are faced with the potential consequences of their actions and it is important that they are here to explain the basis for that refusal or explain delays in providing documentation," he added.
A lawyer representing the Brown family said he believed progress in the case, which has already had 20 separate hearings, was regressing.
Solicitor Kevin Winters said: "I think we are going backwards in this case and there is no prospect that March 9 will remain intact."
Mr Winters also revealed his clients intended to mount a legal challenge against the police, Department of Justice and the Coroners Service over an alleged failure to adequately resource legacy probes as a result of stringent budget cuts imposed by the Stormont Executive.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers may also be named in the judicial review papers, the court heard.
"It is one of a raft of cases that have already been litigated and are making their way through the courts," Mr Winters said.
It also emerged that a list of classified material deemed relevant for the inquest had been lost and that redactions, including the blanking out of names, on 34 folders of non-sensitive material had not been completed by the PSNI.
Mr Winters said the family were being "re-traumatised" by the revelations.
He added: "When the next of kin hear submissions about missing documents and lists, suspicions and fears are compounded.
"It is difficult to translate any sense of contentment with this case."
Throughout the hearing Mr Brown's widow, Bridie sat in the public gallery supported by family members.
Mr Leckey told her he had hoped to hold the inquest before retiring in October.
He said: "I have on more than one occasion said that my earnest hope, before I retire, is to hold an inquest into your husband's murder - one of the most brutal in Northern Ireland.
"My hopes, I fear, are being dashed."
Meanwhile, Ken Boyd, lawyer for the PSNI said it was "unfair" so much criticism was being levelled at the police.