Former-RUC trio redacting secret files on killings linked to alleged shoot-to-kill policy
Three former RUC Special Branch officers have been recruited to vet top secret files on deaths linked to an alleged security force shoot-to-kill policy, the Coroner's Court has heard.
After the revelations at Belfast's Royal Courts, PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris denied there had been a cover-up.
He had been summoned there to explain why it has taken the force so long to hand over State files linked to nine deaths in the early 1980s.
The controversial cases involve six people, including IRA men and a Catholic teenager, who were shot dead by security forces around the Lurgan and Armagh areas during 1982.
Senior Coroner John Leckey is also examining the deaths of three RUC officers in a bomb blast in Lurgan weeks earlier – an attack allegedly carried out by the IRA members.
The paramilitaries were later gunned down in what some claim is evidence for the alleged shoot-to-kill policy.
Mr Leckey, who has expressed concern at the long-running delay, warned the inquests might not proceed if there was insufficient disclosure of State files.
The delay has been blamed on the need to vet two top secret investigations into the killings.
Redaction of material – blacking it out – is usually carried out if there is a risk to a someone's life or a threat of harm should their identity be made public. It usually applies to people such as police informants or soldiers.
Frank O'Donoghue QC, counsel for the Coroner's Service, said labelling the information top secret had dramatically slowed things down. Giving evidence, Mr Harris added the PSNI had vastly underestimated the scale and complexity of the disclosure process, but he insisted timelines had been given in good faith.
The court heard the ex-Special Branch officers had been recruited to to carry out the complex vetting process because they had the necessary expertise.
"There are nuances within (the files) which they can see that others cannot," Mr Harris, himself a former RUC officer, said.
He rejected claims there could be a conflict of interest and insisted the rigorous checks and balances, which run from the PSNI's senior legal adviser to the Chief Constable and onto the Justice Minister, ensured the integrity of the system.
But Mr O'Donoghue said the coroner had only found out about the role of the former Special Branch officers at a late stage.
However, Mr Harris rejected allegations that the PSNI had deliberately hushed the matter up. "I refute that we've been in any way found out on this," he said.
The classified investigations involved in the inquests 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. More than 80 boxes of classified information is being held at a PSNI facility in Seapark, Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, where access to the documents is fiercely restricted.