It was an 9am start in Belfast high court on Friday morning for a preliminary hearing for the Clonoe inquest.
Four men, all IRA volunteers, were ambushed and killed in a hail of heavy gunfire from uncover British soldiers who lay in wait for them on the evening February 16, 1992, at the carpark of Clonoe Chapel on the outskirts of Coalisland, County Tyrone.
The four men, Séan O’Farrell, Patrick Vincent, Peter Clancy and Barry O’Donnell had been part of an IRA active service unit that had went to the Clonoe carpark having just launched a gun attack on the fortified barracks of the RUC and British army in Coalisland.
The attack was more of a propaganda exercise for the IRA than a carefully planned operation that would have had any real chance of inflicting heavy casualties, if any at all, given the nature of the fortification and that it was a drive-by attack. The net result was a few chunks of broken concrete.
Prior intelligence also provided the British army assailants an advantage of where those involved in the attack would go to afterwards. Presumably, this too included that little to no threat would exist from the IRA personnel at this location as they would be dismantling and returning their weapons to be secreted back to an arms dump before making good their onward escape.
The intensity of the gunfire was such that it set ablaze the roof of the Chapel. The gunfire was one way only.
The families have waited for over three decades for an inquest and in that time, relatives have passed away waiting on answers.
Key questions arise from the shootings and not least around the intelligence that forewarned of the attack, the identities of those who were involved, and where one of the weapons was located prior to being used.
For example, could the men have been arrested prior to them attacking the Coalisland barracks, which had all of its main observation posts vacated in advance of the attack?
Could the weapons they used have been seized much earlier?
Could the men have been safely arrested after the attack at the carpark?
Was the force used justified?
Did those who are charged with upholding and applying the rule of law act accordingly?
Was this yet another example of a set-piece ambush in which policing, military and political decisions were taken at senior levels to deploy so-called specialist units of the British army (SAS) to kill all those involved?
Thirty-one years on and the families still await these basic answers.
However, the preliminary inquest is still – unimaginably but not in this jurisdiction when it comes to state killings and collusion and the antics of the PSNI and MoD – struggling to gather paperwork for disclosure despite numerous hearings down the decades.
Standing before LJ Humphreys counsel for the MoD and PSNI were asked to explain how, apart from ‘frantic efforts the day before’ they’d failed to ‘do anything’ despite being given ‘very generous’ extensions on time to provide the necessary documents to enable the inquest to begin proper.
LJ Humphreys, acting as the Presiding Coroner outlined his responsibility for implementing the five-year plan and timetable as set out by the then LCJ (Declan Morgan) in order to hear and complete 52 inquests. He also had to remind counsel for both the MoD and the PSNI that they were in breach of his court order following previous delays in providing disclosures.
He added, in particular to the MoD, that they had taken advantage of his ‘generosity’ in providing ‘extra-time’ and that he was personally insulted by their ‘willy-nilly’ approach.
Justice Humphreys singled out the MoD in response to them sending him a letter stating that they were ‘unable to commit to the timetable for disclosure’ asking:
“Why was this letter written on February 22, weeks after the deadline I set down for disclosure expired?”
“Why were my directions not complied with?”
Referring the letter as a ‘boiler-plate letter’ approach by the MoD in this and other inquests Justice Humphreys added: ‘Frankly, I’m fed-up with this approach and I’m going to nail it once and for all so that legacy inquests can get underway and get the respect they deserve and actually take place.’
‘I’m fed up with the approach of state agencies and their ignorance to my directions and rulings. These boiler-plate cut and paste letters in all legacy inquests needs to stop now.’
‘The generosity I afforded to state agencies has been abused.’
‘I’m going to now keep watch in every single inquest and I don’t want a repeat of this.’
Referring to the PSNI and MoD approach Justice Humphreys said this was ‘a gross breach of my ruling and an insult to me.’ He also referenced the families who have waited.
Referring to 19 folders of non-sensitive disclosure identified back in 2014 Justice Humphries was less than impressed to hear that the PSNI had in all this time managed to review these. However, the PSNI, he noted, had failed to correspond with the coroner’s office with regards to five folders of sensitive material in all that time.
Justice Humphreys told counsel for the MoD and the PSNI that he wanted ‘an apology in writing by close of business on Monday.’
Moving on counsel for the families were asked if they’d anything to add. This provided opportunity to raise the issue of ‘locked files’ provided by the PSNI. This system of disclosing relatively basic information by the PSNI in this method means that the documents are not searchable and lawyers for the families have to manually complete the task of searching and cross-referencing. This too included receiving material just before hearings.
Justice Humphreys agreed this should be addressed.
The hearing fixed a deadline for the disclosure of all material to included sensitive files with an ‘absolute deadline of March 31, by which to meet your (PSNI/MoD) legal obligations otherwise you’ll be before me.’
Justice Humphreys also added that he was going to proceed on the basis that there were no applications for public interest immunity (PII) and that if there were then this would be addressed by him during a single hearing so as to avoid delaying tactics. His deadline for receiving PII applications is April 28.
Concluding LJ Humphreys said: ‘We’re not going to have a repeat of what has gone on before. This inquest is going to be heard and the date for hearing it is September 18 and it will sit over a six-week period.’
The PSNI MoD mantra of a ‘lack of resources’ excuse in delaying inquests and ultimately due process across a range of criminal justice processes including the police ombudsman and civil cases needs to stop. Resources can be found for every other function. It is no coincidence that this occurs when the very state agencies involved in killings are the subject of having to account. The convenience of deliberately under-resourcing this area of work needs called out more often and more loudly.
When Justice Weir carried out his review of legacy inquests almost a decade ago he referenced the legal obligations placed upon the state as did Justice Humphreys.
In response to those legal obligations Justice Weir said at the time this wasn’t an issue like a new flag or a mascot or the purchase of equipment that you could just decide what to prioritise and what not to do. Legal requirements are not optional extras.
Families have rights and the deceased had rights and we need to get to the bottom of what actually happened, what was known and what was preventable.
Editors Notes: Andrew McGuinness appeared for the MoD: Mark Robinson for the PSNI: representing the next of kin: Niall Murphy KRW Law for the O’Donnell family: Mallon & Mallon solicitors for the Vincent family: McCourt & Maguire solicitors for the Clancy family. The family of Séan O’Farrell are not participating the inquest.