Police have issued a public apology to the widow of a GAA official abducted and murdered by loyalist paramilitaries for “inadequacies” in the RUC investigation.
Deficiencies around the original probe into the killing of Sean Brown were acknowledged at the High Court in Belfast today as part of a settlement reached in legal action over alleged protection given to the terrorists who targeted him for assassination.
The resolution was announced on the 25th anniversary of the 61-year-old’s murder.
Mr Brown was abducted by a Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gang as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAA Club in Co Derry in May 1997.
The father of six was bundled into the boot of his car and taken to Randalstown, Co Antrim.
He was shot six times before the killers left his body beside the burning Ford Sierra.
No one has ever been brought to justice for his murder, but court papers name notorious ex-LVF boss Mark 'Swinger' Fulton among the suspects.
In 2002, Fulton was found dead in a cell at Maghaberry Prison, where he was being held on separate conspiracy to murder charges.
The RUC investigation into Mr Brown's killing has been subject to heavy criticism from both the Police Ombudsman and the now defunct Historical Enquiries Team.
His widow, Bridie Brown, sued the Chief Constable of the PSNI for alleged misfeasance in public office and negligence.
Her lawyers contended that RUC Special Branch deliberately hampered and withheld information from detectives investigating Mr Brown's murder.
The gun used in the shooting is linked to several other killings in the Mid Ulster area, according to the statement of claim.
It alleged: "Fulton and the LVF acted with impunity conferred upon them by the State."
The case was listed for a five-day trial, due to get underway next month.
But in court today, counsel for the Brown family confirmed that the action has been resolved.
Reading out an agreed statement, Brian Fee QC said: “Sean Brown, a devoted family man and a pillar of the Bellaghy community, was murdered on May 12, 1997.
“As a result of negotiations, the plaintiff has agreed a satisfactory full and final settlement of this action with the first defendant.
“The PSNI wishes to apologise to Mrs Brown and her family for inadequacies in the RUC original investigation and continues to engage fully in the ongoing inquest proceedings.”
PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Saunders later said: “I can confirm that a civil action in the case relating to the death of Sean Brown has been settled and the Police Service of Northern Ireland accepts the comments as per the Terms of Settlement read out in Court today.”
Following the settlement announced to Mr Justice Humphreys, the family’s solicitor explained why the case had been taken.
In a statement on their behalf, Niall Murphy of KRW Law said: “Mrs Brown was compelled to commence the litigation due to the abject and frightening litany of failings evident in the original RUC investigation.
“The failings have been confirmed in successive public reports by the Police Ombudsman and the HET.”
He added: “Whereas the Brown family appreciate the maturity with which the current Chief Constable has discharged his unavoidable liabilities for the failing of his predecessors in the RUC, (they) are wholly and solely focused on the convention of the inquest, which will provide a public forum for the attendance and cross examination of witnesses.
“The family further welcome and are comforted by the remarks today, of the presiding senior coroner, Mr Justice Humphreys, who confirmed the importance of the inquest in the overall context of this case.”
The SDLP’s Mid Ulster MLA, Patsy McGlone, welcomed the police apology.
“My thoughts are with the family of Sean Brown who have finally received the apology they deserve exactly 25 years on from his murder,” he said.
"It has been a long journey for the family as they have tirelessly campaigned to secure truth and justice for their loved one’s murder and I hope this statement from the PSNI brings some comfort to them.
“The SDLP has long highlighted the failings of the investigations into Mr Brown’s murder and stood with his family as they have attempted to establish the circumstances surrounding his death and the reasons a proper investigation did not take place. I welcome the PSNI’s acknowledgement of these failures following on from the findings of the Police Ombudsman and Historical Enquiries Team.”
Mr McGlone said it was now of the “utmost importance" that an inquest into Mr Brown’s death begins as soon as possible to give the family answers after more than two decades of waiting.
“There can be no more dither or delay around this case, the failings surrounding the initial investigation have been public knowledge for some time and the Brown family shouldn’t have to wait any longer for justice.”