Thursday 30th March 2023
In a judgment in the High Court on Thursday 30th March 2023 it was ruled that the British government’s legal officer should decide whether there should be a new inquest into the assassination of senior INLA member Ronnie Bunting. The judicial review had been taken by Ronnie Bunting’s widow Suzanne Bunting. Mr. Justice Scoffield said that sensitive documents and intelligence information about the killing, if revealed, could damage national security. This is only the second time that that the British government’s legal officer will decide about an inquest on national security grounds. The other case in question was the killing by the SAS of 8 IRA members at Loughgall in 1987.
Suzanne Bunting’s lawyers had argued that the Attorney General for Northern Ireland should make the decision. However, Mr. Justice Scoffield ruled that it was correct to transfer responsibility for any new inquest into the murder to the British government’s chief legal adviser on the grounds on national security. The existence of ‘sensitive information’ meant the Secretary of State for the North of Ireland had no discretion in the matter and was legally bound to refer any application for a new inquest to the UK’s Attorney General.
Ronnie Bunting was killed by the UDA in October 1980. An undercover RUC unit had been surveilling the Bunting home on the night he was killed. It is believed the undercover unit had been briefed by the RUC’s Special Branch that an attempt would be made that night to kill him. They were ordered to do a CTR (close target rescue) but were told to stand down and return to base shortly before he was killed.
The former Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin had been considering whether to order a new inquest in 2019 when the then Secretary of State Karen Bradley transferred responsibility to the UK government’s chief legal adviser and Advocate General on the grounds that it would be against the interests of national security to disclose information in relation to Ronnie Bunting’s murder.
Lawyers for Suzanne Bunting had argued that there was no discretion and insufficient material for the Secretary of State to transfer the matter to the UK’s legal officer. As part of the process not to reveal sensitive documents in relation to the killing the case was subject to Closed Material Proceedings (CMP). A gist of the CMP hearing stated that the Secretary of State had been provided with a range of sensitive material including intelligence relating to the murder of Ronnie Bunting and those suspected of being involved in his killing. It was claimed that the material did not contain any information which showed the security forces had any pre-emptive intelligence that could have prevented the murder.
Mr. Justice Scoffield said it was lawful for the Secretary of State to take the view that the conditions for transferring responsibility to the British government’s legal officer were met. “There was information relevant to the question of whether a direction for a fresh inquest should be given which was or included information the disclosure of which may be against the interests of national security.”
He further stated “Once the Secretary of State had formed the view that such information exists and is relevant to the substantive question of whether a direction should be given, he or she is then bound to certify that fact, which has the consequence that the Advocate General then exercises the function which would otherwise fall to the Attorney General”.
The Police Ombudsman is investigating allegations of collusion between the UDA the RUC and British Military Intelligence in Ronnie Bunting’s murder. Documents found in the UDA headquarters in 1982 showed evidence of the collusion. A HET report that reviewed Ronnie Bunting’s murder said the materials found were police and army documents that gave details of known republican activists. Six UDA members were arrested and charged with the documents found in the UDA offices. Two of those who were charged had been arrested and questioned about Ronnie Bunting’s murder. They were charged with conspiracy to have possession of documents and recordings containing information of a nature likely to be useful to terrorists in planning or carrying out acts of violence. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) later withdrew charges.
There is also evidence of British Military Intelligence involvement in Ronnie Bunting’s assassination. Operation Ranc (revenge Airey Neave campaign) was designed to carry out revenge attacks against the INLA after they killed Tory MP Airey Neave in 1979. Operation Ranc is referred to in Father Raymond Murray’s book, The SAS in Ireland. According to Father Murray Operation Ranc cost the lives of Ronnie Bunting, Noel Little, Miriam Daly and John Turnley. It was terminated prematurely following strong but private protests from the Irish Government.