Letters probe over Kingsmill deaths
A coroner is to ask the Government to reveal if it sent letters of comfort to suspects in a notorious IRA massacre of 10 Protestant workmen.
John Leckey, Northern Ireland's senior coroner, is requesting the information after a bereaved relative raised concerns that potentially six individuals suspected of involvement in the Kingsmill killings in 1976 have been issued with papers assuring them they were not wanted by the authorities.
Mr Leckey said he would write to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers seeking her comment on claims from a mother of one of the victims that suspects may have been included in the contentious administrative scheme to deal with on-the-run (OTR) republicans.
"I would like a substantive response sooner rather than later," Mr Leckey told a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast.
The move came after a lawyer for Beatrice Worton, whose son Kenneth was killed, criticised the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Matt Baggott for refusing to disclose whether Kingsmill suspects were processed through the OTR scheme.
The process, set up in the early 2000s as part of a peace process deal between the Government and Sinn Fein, enabled fugitives to establish whether police in the UK were actively seeking them.
Around 190 republicans were subsequently sent letters of comfort.
Since details of the scheme emerged earlier this year, after the collapse of a case against a man accused of murdering four soldiers in the IRA's Hyde Park bomb in 1982, controversy has raged over whether the letters amounted to effective immunity cards.
The prosecution of John Downey, 62, from Co Donegal, over the London outrage was halted in February after a judge found he had been wrongly sent one of the letters, when in fact the Metropolitan Police were looking for him. Downey had denied involvement in the attack.
A series of separate investigations are currently being carried out into aspects of the wider OTR scheme, including a judge-led review ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mr Leckey is presiding over a new inquest into the sectarian shootings at Kingsmill, which was ordered by Northern Ireland's Attorney General, John Larkin, last year after a long campaign by bereaved relatives.
Ten textile workers were shot dead by the side of a road near the Co Armagh village after a gang of masked gunmen flagged down the minibus they were travelling home from work in.
The killers asked all the occupants of the vehicle what religion they were.
The only Catholic worker was ordered away from the scene and the 11 remaining workmates were then gunned down. Only one survived, despite being shot 18 times.
No-one has ever been convicted of the murders .
The 10 men who died were John Bryans, Robert Chambers, Reginald Chapman, Walter Chapman, Robert Freeburn, Joseph Lemmon, John McConville, James McWhirter, Robert Samuel Walker and Kenneth Worton.
At the preliminary hearing in Belfast's Coroner's Court, a lawyer representing Mr Worton's mother said she harboured grave concerns that some of those suspected of killing her son had received letters of comfort.
Barrister Neil Rafferty said a number of the findings of a cold case review undertaken by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team (HET) three years ago had become more troubling when considered in the context of the recent OTR revelations.
The HET findings he referred to included:
:: That seven suspects were identified by police in the wake of the shootings, but their efforts to arrest and question them were frustrated by the fact they resided across the border in the Republic of Ireland.
:: In 2002, one of the suspects was stopped by authorities travelling through Heathrow airport but was eventually allowed to proceed.
:: That of the seven initial suspects, only one was still being sought in connection with the shootings at the time of the HET review.
Mr Rafferty told Mr Leckey: "That raises very, very grave concerns on the part of Mrs Worton that some of these suspects may well be in receipt of comfort letters."
The barrister said his client was worried that efforts to catch the killers had been undermined.
"The investigation may well have been stymied by other actions that she does not know about," he said.
Mrs Worton's legal team sent a letter in February, via Mr Leckey's office, to the Crown Solicitor's Office in Belfast asking for PSNI chief Mr Baggott to address her concerns.
As part of the OTR scheme, the PSNI examined what, if any evidence, it had against the individuals and outlined the findings to the Government's Northern Ireland Office (NIO), which then issued letters.
The Crown Solicitor's Office replied to Mrs Worton's request stating that it would "not be appropriate" for Mr Baggott to comment when the judicial probe ordered by Mr Cameron was ongoing.
Mr Rafferty accused Mr Baggott of "hiding behind" the inquiry, insisting the review, which is being carried out by Lady Justice Heather Hallett, was not a reason to prevent the specific concerns about Kingsmill being addressed.
Mr Leckey said he was "very conscious" that he, through the inquest, had a duty to allay rumour and suspicion around deaths.
He said he would therefore write to the NIO, and Ms Villiers directly, asking for comment on Mrs Worton's concerns.
Ken Boyd, representing the PSNI, suggested that the coroner wait to pursue the issue until after Lady Justice Hallett's probe was completed in the summer.
Mr Leckey replied: "That isn't a reason for the letter not going (now)."
Earlier, Mr Boyd had made clear that the HET report had not been able to establish exactly why a suspect was allowed to proceed through Heathrow in 2002, noting that the airport authorities may not have been aware of the PSNI's interest in the individual when stopped.
The IRA never admitted responsibility for the murders, but the HET investigation concluded that members of the republican organisation did perpetrate the attack -, motivated purely by sectarianism.
Mr Rafferty said the Kingsmill families had previously raised the issue with Ms Villiers at a private meeting but had yet to receive the information they wanted.
At an earlier preliminary hearing, Mr Leckey ordered any forensic exhibits which had not already been re-examined as part of the HET investigation to be tested again.
Mr Boyd said today that the only new forensic opportunity to emerge was a DNA test currently being carried out on a palm print left on the van.
But the lawyer played down the significance of the examination.
"It's unlikely that will reveal anything else," he said.
"I wouldn't want families to feel there's any real hope in regard to that."
The court also heard that disclosure of police and Ministry of Defence files related to the case are due before the summer. However, the Garda in the Irish Republic has not yet given a timetable for disclosure of its files on the shootings.
As at the first preliminary hearing, the second was well attended by the victims' families.
The public gallery was packed with relatives.
Stormont Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, who is from Bessbrook, near Kingsmill, and is an Ulster Unionist Assembly member for Newry and Armagh, accompanied the families to court.
After the hearing, Mr Kennedy said concerns about whether suspects were sent letters required "urgent clarification".
"I welcome Coroner Leckey's agreement to write to the NIO and Secretary of State to ask for clarity on whether any letters were issued to those suspects," he added.
"This is an issue that I raised at a meeting between the Secretary of State and the families at the end of February and I intend to seek a response in a follow-up with her."