Inquiry urged into collusion claims
A public inquiry must be considered into a notorious loyalist paramilitary murder gang whose members allegedly included policemen and soldiers, a coroner's court has heard.
Lawyers for one of the estimated 120 victims of the so-called Glenanne gang have insisted only a major state probe, or a thematic inquest covering all the deaths, can get to the truth of the controversial collusion claims.
Northern Ireland's Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire is examining allegations made against Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers while the police's own Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has found "indisputable evidence" of security force collusion in the murderous group.
The call for another investigation into the actions of the Ulster Volunteer Force gang, which operated out of farms in counties Armagh and Tyrone in the mid 1970s, was heard as fresh inquest proceedings into one attack it allegedly carried out began in Belfast.
Mother-of-three Elizabeth 'Betty' McDonald, 38, and keen gaelic footballer Gerard McGleenan, 22, were killed when a no-warning loyalist bomb detonated outside the Step Inn pub and nearby houses in the village of Keady, Co Armagh, in August 1976. Twenty-five other people were injured in the blast.
Aside from claims of security force involvement in the bomb team, it has been alleged that RUC Special Branch and Army surveillance personnel knew a bombing was being planned by the gang but failed to prevent it.
Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin has ordered a new inquest into the deaths.
Mrs McDonald's widower Malachi and Mr McGleenan's brother Robert, along with relatives of other people allegedly killed by the Glenanne gang, were at Belfast Coroner's Court as the preliminary hearing took place before Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey.
Mr Leckey has been asked by a lawyer for Mr McDonald to consider an all-encompassing thematic inquest or recommending a public inquiry.
Last year a coroner in England asked Home Secretary Theresa May to establish a public inquiry into the 2006 poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, claiming that sensitive issues of national security could not be examined at an inquest. Mrs May's subsequent decision to turn down a statutory inquiry was quashed by the High Court, which told her to reconsider the matter.
Mr Leckey stressed to Mr McDonald's solicitor Peter Corrigan that the threshold at which a national security issue was reached was quite high, noting that allegations against a small number of officers might not be applicable.
Mr Corrigan insisted the collusion claims in the Glenanne case were systematic.
"This wasn't just a few bad apples, this was collusion and this was policy," he said.
Mr Leckey asked for full written submissions on the issues involved so he could assess them more fully.
The coroner told the court he had forwarded the broad proposals from Mr McDonald's legal team to Mr Larkin but said the attorney general had said it would not be appropriate for him to comment at this stage as he was currently considering applications to order further inquests linked to the Glenanne gang.
Mr Corrigan said it was vital the new inquest went beyond what happened in Keady to an examination of all the gang's activities.
"In order to reach the truth in relation to Betty McDonald's death we must look at the broad circumstances in relation to links to the Glenanne series," he said
"You can't look at Betty McDonald's death in isolation from all other deaths linked to this gang."
Fiona Doherty, representing the McGleenan family, said her clients wanted the inquest to proceed without delay.
She expressed concern that proceedings could be held up to await the outcome of the Police Ombudsman investigation.
The barrister insisted it would be possible for the Keady inquest to investigate other actions of the Glenanne gang.
"This is a case we say that should proceed with all due expedition," she said.
Peter Coll, representing the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), said he would not object if the inquest touched on wider circumstances linked to the deaths but he said it was a "different matter entirely" if it was to undertake investigations of other deaths, and involve the next of kin of those other victims
"That would broaden it (the remit of an inquest) out wider than has ever been done before," he said.
Mr Leckey made the point that if the Keady inquest was to investigative other deaths, and then Mr Larkin subsequently ordered him to conduct new inquests into those cases as well, he would then be in a position of potentially having to replicate examinations that had already been done.
Outside court, a tearful Mr McDonald described the hearing as "one more step" toward justice.
"It is a hard path but one we are forced to take because those who were paid to protect life were the organisers and perpetrators of the car bomb explosion which went off without warning on our family home of husband, wife and three children, aged seven, four and one and a half."
He added: "The powers that be should be ashamed of themselves, if they know what shame is - they kept silent, they said nothing, but they knew and could have prevented all this but they didn't do it."
In a statement, Robert McGleenan and his family said: "The family want to say they were never informed police could have prevented the bombing, nor were they informed until recently that RUC Special Branch officers knew the identity of all those involved.
"The HET report has called this investigation and the whole process 'catastrophic' and it has indeed been catastrophic for these two families."
He said the families supported the establishment of a full truth recovery process in Northern Ireland to give all bereaved relatives the chance to find out what happened to their loved ones.