March 09 2012

Northern Ireland’s senior coroner has demanded answers from the chief constable over an apparent last-minute change of police policy on disclosing files about alleged shoot-to-kill incidents during the Troubles.

John Leckey has given representatives of Matt Baggott seven days to tell him why he was now objecting to his plan to process an estimated one million documents relating to nine long-delayed inquests.

Families of the dead have expressed “dismay and shock” at a move which Mr Leckey’s lawyer warned could jeopardise the scheduled start of the inter-linked inquests in April next year.

Fiona Doherty, representing two of the victims at a preliminary hearing in Belfast, said: “Developments like this out of the blue don’t assist my clients in trying to come to terms with the progress of an inquest which is long overdue and any suspicions they have about why these deaths occurred.”

The cases involves six people, including IRA men and a Catholic teenager, who were shot dead by security forces around Lurgan and Armagh in 1982 amid claims there was a deliberate intention to kill them. The coroner will also examine the deaths of three Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers 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.

An investigation into whether police set out to kill was carried out in the years after the incidents by former Greater Manchester Police deputy chief constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson of West Yorkshire Police.

The Stalker and Sampson reports were long classified top secret but the Police Service of Northern Ireland finally handed over edited versions to the coroner in 2010 after a long legal battle. The reports were then passed to lawyers for the families.

The latest issue to hit the inquests relates to 85 boxes of material held by the police, upon which the reports are based. As they did with the main reports, the police intend to apply for Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificates to exempt certain details contained within the 175,000 documents, such as names of police and witnesses, from being passed to the court on security grounds.

With the inquests due to be heard in sequence, Mr Leckey planned to deal with the issue of PII and subsequent disclosure to the court on a rolling basis, with only material relating to each incident being processed before that specific case. But in the last few days, with Mr Leckey at the stage where he could hear the first PII application, the coroner received a letter from the police indicating they now had a “fundamental difficulty” with the PII issue.

The PSNI said it wanted to examine all the documents relating to the nine deaths and deal with all the PII issues before the first inquest started.