Saturday 3 December 2016

No coroner for IRA massacre hearing

Michael McHugh

Published 23/04/2015 | 12:22

The bullet riddled minibus near Whitecross in South Armagh where 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead. Credit: PA Archive
The bullet riddled minibus near Whitecross in South Armagh where 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead. Credit: PA Archive
Alan Black, sole survivor of the IRA's Kingsmill massacre, previously pictured before meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Government Buildings, Dublin

An inquest into an IRA massacre of 10 Protestant workmen has been delayed because no coroner will be available to hear it.

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Republicans ambushed a minibus carrying the men at Kingsmill, Co Armagh, in 1976 and shot them dead after checking what religion they were.

Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey is retiring later this year and no replacement has been appointed, he told a preliminary hearing of the inquest in Belfast. Once he leaves there could be only one coroner in the country.

Kingsmill is among dozens of inquests dating from the early days of the conflict which face delay because not enough money is available to investigate or there is nobody to oversee fresh hearings.

Mr Leckey said; "I feel for the bereaved families, not exclusively Kingsmill but for other inquests I am involved in. It is a disappointment that is widespread."

Neil Rafferty, a lawyer for some of the Kingsmill victims, said they would be petitioning Stormont's Justice Department for more resources to allow an inquest to go ahead.

Coroner John Leckey
Coroner John Leckey

Outside the court house, Karen Armstrong, a sister of one of the dead, said: "It is a political difficulty, it is a political problem.

"We are not going to lie down and accept it, we will fight until we get another date and they have to make sure there are enough coroners in Northern Ireland to deal with our and many other cases."

The textile workers were gunned down after an IRA gang stopped their minibus close to the Co Armagh village as they were travelling home from work.

They were forced to line up alongside the van and ordered to divulge their religion. The only Catholic worker was told to flee the scene while the 11 remaining were shot.

Just one man, Alan Black, survived, despite being hit 18 times.

No one has ever been convicted of the murders.

It is believed the vehicle used by the gunmen was stolen in Co Louth in the Republic of Ireland, then abandoned there a short time after the atrocity.

A barrister representing the coroner, Sean Doran QC, said Irish police were reviewing material they held about the killing with a view to sending it to the coroner's service in Northern Ireland.

But a listing to hold the hearing in June was abandoned because other legal matters will take longer than anticipated to complete.

Mr Leckey's retirement is imminent.

He said: "At the minute there are two coroners. Myself, I am almost at the exit door, leaving one in post, and it is a matter for the Department of Justice (DoJ) to resolve.

"I am not in a position to hold the Kingsmill inquest because I will not be in office at the relevant time.

"There is no coroner able to take up these inquests and the DoJ has been made aware of that and also there has been correspondence about the issue of resourcing to enable both the coroner's service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to deal as promptly as possible with what we call legacy inquests."

He suggested that bereaved relatives of victims take it up with Stormont ministers through their lawyers.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that an inquest for murdered doorman Seamus Dillon may also be under threat because of the lack of resources.

The 45-year-old former paramilitary prisoner and father of three from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone was killed hours after Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader Billy Wright was shod dead inside the Maze prison in December 1997.

At a preliminary hearing barrister Gerry McAlinden QC said the seriousness of the situation facing the Coroners Service should be "spelled out" in "very clear terms".

He said: "We have a large number of legacy inquests at present and the large number of legacy inquests is, in a sense, overwhelming the system as it is presently resourced."

The court was told that by late summer Northern Ireland may only have one coroner capable of hearing legacy inquests.

Mr McAlinden added: "There are three full-time coroners. You (Mr Leckey) are retiring in late summer and there do not appear to be any plans to replace you.

"That will leave two full-time coroners trying to deal with a workload that was beyond the capacity for three full-time coroners.

"One of the two other full-time coroners is on sick leave and the situation in relation to that remains very fluid."

It was also claimed that by failing to adequately resource the Coroners Service, the State may be failing to comply with human rights legislation.

Mr McAlinden said: "The State has chosen that the legacy deaths be investigated by means of the coronial system.

"Until the nettle has been grasped and until significant resources are injected into the coronial system to enable the coronial system to properly investigate these deaths the situation unfortunately will mean, if not actual then potential breaches of Article Two obligations that lie on the State."

A full inquest hearing had been scheduled to start last December but has been indefinitely delayed.

"The Coroners Service is doing its level best to ensure that these investigations are progressed but with the resources it has and with the potential for a coroner not to be replaced upon retirement it is very difficult to see how the investigation can be progressed to any degree of expediency," Mr McAlinden said.

Afterwards, Rosie Kinnear, from KRW Law, which is representing Mr Dillon's family, described the situation as "disappointing".

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