Hamill murder inquiry: Call to reconsider decision not to prosecute RUC officer
A public inquiry into an infamous sectarian murder in the North called today for the authorities to reconsider their decision not to prosecute a police officer accused of protecting one of the killers.
Catholic father-of-three Robert Hamill was attacked by a loyalist mob in Portadown, Co Armagh, in April 1997 as he walked home after a night out with friends.
The inquiry has heard claims that armed police at the scene failed to intervene during the prolonged attack and that as a result the 25-year-old suffered fatal injuries.
Today the inquiry issued an unscheduled interim report urging the Public Prosecution Service to "reconsider urgently" a 2004 decision not to proceed with the prosecution of former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Reserve Constable Robert Atkinson for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
The sectarian murder of Mr Hamill was one of the most high- profile cases of the Troubles and was compared with the Metropolitan Police mishandling of the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
The Hamill Inquiry opened in January last year and immediately heard claims that, within days of the murder, the then RUC had evidence that a fellow officer protected one of the killers from prosecution.
The opening session of the inquiry was told that, within two weeks of the murder, police had names for those involved in the assault, and were aware of claims that Mr Atkinson warned one of the killers to dispose of clothes worn in the attack and updated him on the investigation.
Mr Atkinson was one of four armed RUC officers in a police Land Rover parked at the scene of the assault during which Mr Hamill suffered serious head injuries, before dying 11 days later in hospital without regaining consciousness.
Mr Atkinson denied the allegations made against him and a charge of conspiring to pervert the course of justice was withdrawn in 2004.
Today the inquiry said: "The inquiry's interim report, which was delivered to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on January 29, 2010, makes its recommendation on the basis solely of the inquiry's concerns about the need to take into account all matters available which are relevant to making a decision whether or not to prosecute.
"The report does not comment on the merits of the original prosecution nor on what conclusion might be reached after any reconsideration.
"The inquiry operates under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005 which contains a provision for public inquiries to deliver an interim report."
The allegations surfaced again last year at the opening session of the inquiry when lead counsel Ashley Underwood QC revealed the details of the case.
"By May 10, 1997, the RUC had the identities of a number of Protestants who were said to have murdered Mr Hamill," he told the inquiry.
"Further, it had evidence that one of the Reserve Constables in the Land Rover, Mr Atkinson, had protected one of those, by telling him to get rid of his clothing and by keeping him informed about the investigation.
"Nonetheless, no-one has been convicted of murdering Mr Hamill and only one person was convicted of affray arising out of the attack on him.
"Reserve Constable Atkinson was eventually charged in relation to a conspiracy arising out of the alleged tip-offs that he gave, but was not prosecuted to trial."
Today's intervention by the Inquiry comes as it is still compiling its final report on the case, which it signalled could take a considerable amount of time to complete.
A spokeswoman for the inquiry said today: "The inquiry panel is conscious of the desire for public inquiries to produce their reports with due expediency.
"The panel was therefore anxious that this important recommendation should be delivered to the Secretary of State at the earliest opportunity.
"The inquiry has published its interim report at the invitation of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
"Although it is impossible at this stage for the inquiry to provide any firm date for the delivery of its final report, it hopes to complete it within the next 12 months."
Mr Hamill's case was championed during the late 1990s by his family's solicitor, Rosemary Nelson, who campaigned for a public inquiry into the allegations of police misconduct.
In March 1999, Mrs Nelson, a 40-year-old married mother of three, was also murdered amid claims of security force collusion.
The solicitor, based in the Lurgan area of Co Armagh, had made allegations of police and security force harassment, and had also reported threats from violent loyalist groups.
Mrs Nelson died from major injuries after a bomb exploded under her car as she drove from home. Next week marks the anniversary of her March 15 murder.
A loyalist splinter group claimed responsibility for the attack, but the sophistication of the device and the history of threats against the lawyer fuelled speculation of a wider conspiracy.
A separate public inquiry was subsequently launched into allegations of security force involvement in Mrs Nelson's murder.
The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry and the Robert Hamill Inquiry were both heard in the Interpoint building in Belfast city centre.
The inquiry into Mrs Nelson's case has also concluded and it is also compiling its final report.