The second of three modules in the inquest of Paul “Topper” Thompson concluded today, Thursday 8th June 2023. The primary witness was Mr Thomas Holland, a long-time activist and community leader in Springfield Park and the surrounding communities. Remembering his long-time friend, Mr Holland described Topper as ‘a guy that had a permanent smile on his face’ who volunteered his time for the children and families in the community, and ‘just an incredible character.’
In his years of community work, Mr Holland has championed many causes including compensation for damage caused during Army raids, creation of a new and reformed policing force, and installation of home security measures to protect residents from escalating loyalist attacks. He was also very involved in the campaign to construct a substantial peace wall to replace the ‘totally inadequate’ fences that were constantly breached. He described Springfield Park as a ‘hotspot’ not only as an interface, but as an area frequently besieged by shootings, bombings, and sectarian violence.
Mr Alsworth, Counsel for the PSNI stuck to the strategy he’s used all week – quibbling about irrelevant details. Mr Holland kept the questioning on track, at one point redirecting meandering cross-examination to issue at the heart of the inquest: that ‘two guys broke through the fence and shot Topper Thompson.’ When Mr Alsworth suggested that residents should have contacted the RUC again after receiving no response, Mr Holland reminded the courtroom that the community had long been accustomed to the RUC failing to respond to their concerns.
What was clear throughout Mr Holland’s testimony was Springfield Park’s justified fear of attackers breaking through the fence’s flimsy protection. He described the fence as a ‘patchwork quilt’ of corrugated iron that was constantly breached and did little or nothing to deter violence against Springfield Park’s residents. One home was the site of a bombing only shortly after it had also been the site of a shooting. In another incident, a young boy was shot in the back while doing homework in his own house.
So Mr Holland understood the community’s alarm when men were spotted tampering with the fencing. Upon request, he printed leaflets advising residents to take extra caution while the fence was possibly vulnerable. Reflecting on the inadequacy of the peace line, Mr Holland wondered how anybody could in good faith call it a peace or security fence.
Mr Holland was later asked to give a tour of the area to the Historical Enquiries Team during their investigation into Topper’s death. He clearly remembers the investigators being ‘gobsmacked’ when they saw how close the Henry Taggart barracks were to several homes that had been attacked by loyalists.
The week of hearings ended with consideration of a series of procedural next steps focussed on how to take the inquest forward. Broadly, these addressed:
- Discovery: this is the yielding of information held by state authorities which may be relevant to the work of the inquest. Collecting potentially relevant material assessing it, reading it (at which the coroner’s staff are required to be in the company of the material’s possessor – PSNI, PPS, MoD as the case may be) and redacting sensitive parts all takes inordinately long. This is due to the usual risk-averse approach of these authorities. But it has also been a tactic used in legacy inquests in the north of Ireland as a way of stretching out the process. Given the legislative approach of the NIO’s “Bill of Shame” which might truncate inquests in favour of self-serving reviews under the supervision of the NIO itself, the desire to prolong discovery is given added impetus. The number of times this author has heard of excuses for delays is inordinate. Now that legacy inquest are finally actually taking place, this, in itself, has become the latest excuse – pressure on scant resources and coroners setting deadlines! On this occasion, the coroner was not disposed to countenance delays. She wants the MoD disclosure by the end of the month and the PSNI disclosure by the end of October. Coroner Fee said, “They have had oceans of time”.
- Anonymity and applications for screening: Of course, once we know what material is going to be relied on, public servants will begin to assess whether they need to provide their evidence privately – with their names and images/persons hidden. Another opportunity for delaying matters. In a thumbs up for transparency, the NIO’s Civil Rep has indicated that he intends to give his evidence in person! No doubt many others will seek not to.
- Article 2, the right to life: the question as to whether this will need to operate as an Article 2-compliant inquest is moot due to judgements in McQuillan and (forthcoming at the Supreme Court) Dalton. These cases have focussed on the question as to whether deaths which occurred before the coming in to force of the Human Rights Act in 2001 can attract the protection of the European Convention Article 2 right. Given that Topper Thompson was murdered in 1994 it is not automatic and is something that will be kept under review. It may affect the scope and the findings of the inquest.
- Transcripts: the coroner confirmed that transcripts will be made of all hearings and will be available for properly interested parties.
- Progress of the inquest: Coroner Fee indicated her desire that the next time the inquest convenes to hear evidence should be the final set of hearings; she wants to complete all the evidence in that session – though there is not yet an indication as to how many days that will involve. This is good news, given rumours that the NIO Bill of Shame may legislate a cut-off date for uncompleted inquests. It is to be hoped that the inquest will have completed by next spring, leaving the coroner free to write and deliver her findings without interference.
- Date of next hearing: 1pm on Monday 2nd October, 2023. This will be a preliminary hearing – for review and management of the inquest – which will monitor and assess discovery and the progress of other elements of the inquests work.
Coroner Fee concluded proceedings and adjourned the inquest.