Coroner lambasts PSNI approach to disclosure of information on pensioner’s killings

Roseann Mallon
Roseann Mallon
Roseann Mallon

By Mike Ritchie

The Roseann Mallon inquest has now closed; we await the concluding findings of Judge Reg Weir from the epic 18 months of hearings, the frequent surprises and revelations, the volumes of material with the prodigious redaction count. Yet even at this stage when closing submissions have been made, the state is continuing to apply for a public interest immunity certificate in respect of newly released material relevant to the case. In closing remarks, Reg Weir referred to a letter from the police which sought to explain why the recent material is only now being released. “Have you read the letter?”, he asked the police barrister; “Have you read Alice in Wonderland?”

Roseann Mallon (76) was murdered while watching television at a relative’s house in Co Tyrone on May 8, 1994. Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen indiscriminately opened fire spraying the bungalow at Cullenrammer Road, Dungannon, with bullets.

The UVF said its mid-Ulster brigade had been responsible. After the shooting, army spying equipment was found in a nearby field. This, along with a number of other suspicious circumstances has resulted in compelling claims of security force collusion behind the attack. Though there have been no convictions for the incident, Portadown loyalist Billy Wright – who was murdered in 1997 – and two other loyalists, were arrested and questioned at the time.

At the final hearing on 17th June 2015, Judge Weir said that the arrangements the police have put in place for storing material and arranging to make it available “are in disarray”. Someone, he said, needs to get busy and devise a system which allows searching of the police database so that all information comes in a timely fashion. “Suspicion is bound to arise when material is released in dribs and drabs.” If people keep saying: oh, here’s something else, it’s not helpful and “it hasn’t helped the smooth running of this inquest”.

Referring to the fact that there are 53 legacy inquests pending involving 86 deaths he described his disappointment at the police behaviour: “What’s going to happen if this is the pattern for the rest of the legacy inquests. This does need to be taken seriously by someone.”

These remarks were on top of repeated asides about the disappearance of evidence in this case. The judge put it to police counsel: “If your elderly relative is killed and then you find a secret camera trained on the family property it is natural that anyone would be suspicious. The drip feed of documents, the non-availability of relevant documents and other evidence whether lost or destroyed must all elevate rather than allay suspicions.”

As counsel for the Mallon family outlined:

– video tapes from the secret camera are “no longer available;

– it is not known whether finger-prints were taken from bullets retrieved from the murder scene;

– police journals have been destroyed;

– intelligence was wilfully not shared with the murder investigation team.

On top of this, serious errors have been made in respect of ballistic evidence that must have hindered the investigation. And a shadowy Special Branch run forensic team called the Weapons and Explosives Research Centre emerged into the light with a questionable reputation for professionalism and correct forensic procedure.

On the question of police journals, the judge suggested at one point that perhaps the material in the journals was “anodyne” and therefore not much was lost to the inquest by their destruction at the hands of retired police officers. However, one could equally suggest that, if the material in the journals was anodyne, why bother to destroy them so comprehensively?

Nevertheless, counsel for the police sought to reassure the judge that all is well: the police investigation did its best, Special Branch contributed all that it could, the covert army surveillance was warranted and the presence of considerable numbers of soldiers in the vicinity at the time of the murder is all beyond suspicion. The murder couldn’t have been prevented, the murderers couldn’t have been caught; and of course the intelligence agencies had no hand, act or part in setting up the loyalists to this murder.

At one stage, the judge asked counsel for the family to consider whether Roseann was the target of the loyalists or perhaps two of her nephews who made no bones about their robust republican views. Surely, said the judge, these views would have made them “inimical to loyalists”. It is unfortunate that the barrister did not make explicit that this would also, of course, make them inimical to Special Branch and army intelligence.

Overall, after attendance at a number of the hearings, one is left with the impression that the police hold a vast mountain of information with which they can construct mundane policing and security narratives of a plodding police service doing its best to police the Troubles. This is done by selective and episodic release of information in a managed and self-serving manner.

But when one considers the incredible resources of manpower and intelligence available to the police, the routine threats made to republicans by Special Branch officers, the deliberate targeting of extended family members and the increasing evidence of links and intelligence sharing between state security agencies and loyalists, the persistent absence of information on collusion tells its own story. As counsel for the family put it: it is the wilful failure of the Special Branch to disclose relevant information, the wilful destruction of information which tells the tale. At one point the judge asked the police barrister: “If it were known to the UVF that the army is taking an interest in the Mallons” and are conducting surveillance on them, would that not be a reason for loyalists to target the family?

In response to that question the state, the old RUC, the top of the PSNI and the guardians of that mountain of information and intelligence that holds the key to unlocking the truth about the past say: No. Meanwhile, republicans and nationalists shout: Yes.

It now falls to Mr Justice Weir to come to his conclusions.