By Mike Ritchie
Mrs Justice Keegan has now completed her review of the 40 legacy inquests – relating to 71 deaths – which she has been carrying out over the last three weeks. She will now consider all the information and develop a schedule of cases based on how far along the route to readiness they are. This will depend on how much work has taken place in respect of handing over material, how complex the issues are and how much time will be required for hearing the actual evidence.
Keegan J will seek to schedule ten cases per year over the five year plan. Crucial will be the need for case management by the coroners appointed to the cases further down the line. As happened with the last review in 2015, there is little improvement in the PSNI and Ministry of Defence processing of documentation. Given the opportunity, they delay and obfuscate. Unless appointed coroners take a robust approach to moving things forward, we predict that delays and excuses will proliferate.
We can expect the scheduling approach to emerge between Hallowe’en and Christmas.
Though it is important to remember that each case involves a tragic loss for the next of kin, a case involving a single death by a uniformed British army patrol, might be assumed to be more “straightforward” than perhaps a set-piece ambush by “special forces” based on intelligence or state agents’ information. The first case might be allocated two weeks into year one; the latter might require six to eight weeks and, because of redactions and state secrecy, might be pushed into year three or four.
Some of the more controversial of cases are the shoot-to-kill cases from 1982 investigated by John Stalker and Colin Sampson. These were the last to be reviewed by Mrs Justice Keegan. A previous coroner had asked the Attorney General to order new inquests into the deaths of three RUC officers at Kinnego embankment the month before the shoot-to-kill incidents on the basis that that incident is connected and relevant to the RUC shooting of the six men in the subsequent three incidents. The Attorney General had done so. The connection arises from the Stalker/Sampson reports and investigative material which the police have had for 35 years.
However, one month before this review, the new PSNI Chief Constable decided to order yet another investigation into the deaths of the three police officers. This will be carried out by John Boutcher who is approaching the end of his Stakeknife investigation. The families’ lawyer applied this afternoon for the inquest to be delayed until after this investigation is completed. Mrs Justice Keegan argued that preparations for the inquest can proceed in parallel as there remains much work to be done.
However, it is no surprise that the families of the men killed by the RUC feel there is no coincidence in the timing of the new investigation. It feels like a spanner in the works.
This is the way in which violations by the RUC continue to pollute the PSNI. It did not feel that the new Chief Constable was well-advised to begin the new investigation just when some much-needed momentum might have been injected into the long-stalled process.
As one of the relatives put it: “It’s worse than Brexit!”