Coroner warns on Troubles inquests
Northern Ireland's senior coroner has warned the Government that continuing failure to adequately resource inquests into historic Troubles killings could leave it in breach of international law.
John Leckey revealed the contents of a strongly worded letter sent on his behalf to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers as he expressed concern that inquests into nine deaths linked to an alleged security force 'shoot-to-kill' policy in the early 1980s may not go ahead if there is insufficient disclosure of state files.
The spectre of the inquests being abandoned provoked an angry response at Belfast Coroner's Court from lawyers representing the families of some of the men killed, with two solicitors separately branding the possibility an "outrage".
Mr Leckey told the court that despite stressing the need for an urgent response from Ms Villiers he had heard nothing back more than three weeks after the letter was sent.
The so-called shoot-to-kill inquests are among almost 50 outstanding legacy cases still to be dealt with by the Coroner's Service.
While disclosure of police, army and other state agency files have been a recurring cause of delay in many of the probes, those issues are arguably most acute in the nine deaths connected to the shoot-to-kill allegations.
The disclosure process has been running for seven years with no definitive end in sight.
This is primarily due to the requirement to security vet top secret investigations into the killings that were carried out by Greater Manchester Police Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson, of West Yorkshire Police, in the 1980s but never published.
Mr Leckey said he asked his solicitor to write to Ms Villiers, copying in Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin and Advocate General for Northern Ireland Dominic Grieve, to express concern about the length of time disclosure was taking.
During this morning's preliminary inquest hearing, the coroner read out the letter to court.
One section stated: "These cases have been plagued by delay and slow progress, caused principally, but not exclusively, in the Senior Coroner's view by a lack of provision of appropriate resources to allow the PSNI to provide proper disclosure and the Coroner to pursue other lines of inquiry in an effective and timely fashion.
"The delay is, in his view, intolerable and in spite of his best efforts to prompt, cajole and order progress, the commencement of the hearings of these inquests remains at an uncertain point in the future. In the meantime, family members and witnesses are getting older and memories are fading with the passage of time. Some witnesses have already passed away. Undoubtedly more will have died by the time the inquests are held. The Senior Coroner is of the view that sufficient resources will need to be applied in the critical areas of preparation of these inquests if further delays are not to occur."
The letter added: "A failure to address this issue in a timely and proportionate manner undoubtedly would result in deep dissatisfaction, the UK government being potentially in breach of its own international obligations."
Under the terms of Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights the Government has an obligation to carry out timely investigations into controversial deaths - this duty includes disclosure of material to assist a coroner.
While the police, Coroner's Service and a number of other agencies are the responsibility of the devolved administration at Stormont, the Westminster government does have a role when it comes to security vetting files deemed to touch on national security matters.
Mr Leckey's letter told Ms Villiers he had concerns at the "extremely slow" pace of this process.
Moreover, in regard to the actions of the devolved agencies, he pointed out that the Government still had an overarching responsibility.
"The UK Government has international law obligations that it cannot discharge merely by the process of delegating the responsibility for its performance to an internal administration or organ of the State," the letter stated.
The letter, which asked Ms Villiers to set out how central government intended to assist him, stressed the need for a response, either by way of acknowledgement or substantively, as a "matter of some urgency".
Mr Leckey told the court he had not received anything.
"The letter was dated June 4 this year and I have received no acknowledgement from anyone," he said.
Last month, relatives of six men killed by the security forces or loyalist paramilitaries in other incidents in Northern Ireland were awarded compensation over delays in holding inquests into the deaths.
A High Court judge awarded £7,500 to a member of each bereaved family after the police, Coroners Service and a number of other state bodies conceded that delays amounted to a breach of human rights.
In those cases relatives argued that the failure to hold timely inquests breached both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK's Human Rights Act.
The "shoot-to-kill" cases involve six people, including IRA men and a Catholic teenager, who were shot dead by the security forces around Lurgan and Armagh in 1982 amid claims there was a deliberate intention to kill them.
The coroner is also examining the deaths of three Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers who died in a bomb blast weeks earlier, an attack allegedly carried out by the IRA men who were subsequently gunned down and therefore seen as a potential motivation for the claimed shoot-to-kill policy.
After outlining the details of the letter to Ms Villiers, Mr Leckey said he had not yet decided if the nine inquests were a "viable proposition".
He said that would be dependent on the concerns raised being addressed properly.
The coroner explained that he had a duty to hold an inquest that was compliant with human rights legislation and he would potentially be unable to do that if there was not sufficient disclosure of files.
Barry McDonald QC, representing the families of two of the men killed by the security forces, said they would be shocked by the coroner's remarks.
"They would regard it is nothing short of an outrage if it was decided there would be no inquests," he said.
He claimed such a move would let the state "get away" without disclosing material.
Karen Quinlivan QC, representing the other four security force victims, echoed Mr McDonald's comments.
Also claiming abandonment would be an "outrage", she added: "Nobody should be letting anyone off the hook by not letting this inquest go ahead."
Mr Leckey insisted the issue of the viability of the inquests could only be considered when the disclosure process was deemed to have been exhausted.
Dr Tony McGleenan QC, representing the PSNI, expressed hope that disclosure would be completed by the end of the year.