13 June 2023

State agencies accused of ‘deliberately delaying’ information release over death

13 June 2023

State agencies have been accused of “deliberately delaying” the release of information about the death of a man killed by loyalists 26 years ago so an inquest cannot be completed.

At a review hearing in the inquest into the death of Sean Brown, coroner Mr Justice Patrick Kinney directed that the delayed proceedings would resume hearing evidence next January and be completed by February.

However, with the process of handing over security force documents around the murder not yet completed, a barrister for the PSNI said he believed the proposed agenda “cannot be met”.

This led the barrister for the Brown family to describe the situation as “a disgrace”.

Mr Brown, 61, a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) official, was abducted and killed by loyalists as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in May 1997.

No-one has been convicted of his murder. The inquest began in March.

The proceedings are taking place against the backdrop of a proposed controversial Government Bill on the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

An amendment to the draft legislation, introduced by the Government last week, stated that all ongoing legacy inquests, other than those at the point of verdict, will cease on May 1 2024.

A number of nationalist politicians, including Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill and SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole were at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast to support the Brown family during the review hearing.

Counsel for the coroner Joseph Aiken KC told the hearing that it had been planned to hold two days of evidence in the inquest this week.

However, he said this had not been possible due to the size of the witness schedule, pointing out that there were 420 potential witnesses in the case.

He then updated the court on disclosure issues around outstanding sensitive and non-sensitive material about Mr Brown’s death from the PSNI and Ministry of Defence.

Mr Aiken then set out a timetable, agreed by the coroner, for when the process of handing over the outstanding material should be completed over the coming months.

Mr Aiken said the full inquest would resume on January 8 2024 for four consecutive weeks of hearing and would conclude by February 2.

I can't allow the internal processes, however difficult they are, to dictate the path of this inquest

PSNI barrister Mark Robinson said that a public immunity interest (PII) process was to be carried out and said it should be “conducted properly”.

He told the court that he believed that dates imposed within the agenda “cannot be met”.

Coroner Mr Justice Kinney said: “The fact is this is a matter where we are not at a standing start today looking at this process.

“This has been a process that has apparently been under way in some form for almost a year and what I am being told today still seems to remain that process that will dictate the timetable even though that process is opaque.

“I can’t allow the internal processes, however difficult they are, to dictate the path of this inquest.”

He added: “In short, a best endeavour submission today is not sufficient and it will not cut the mustard. There is a timetable which I certainly appreciate is challenging, but it is challenging because so little has been done in the past.

“That has to change. So, the timetable stands.”

Barrister for the Brown family Stephen Toal, said the PSNI position was an “insult” to the Brown family.

He said: “The PSNI and the security forces have had 26 years to collate those documents.

“The prominence afforded to this inquest arises from the depth of feeling within the wider community about this horrendous murder and the way this proud family have been treated to this point.

“Today in court we see an outpouring of support for this family.”

This continued delay now has a realisable prize. Reach May 1 and the years of stonewalling will have been a success

Referring to the Government’s announcement of its amendment to its legacy Bill, Mr Toal said: “It did come as quite a shock to the Brown family to learn that all of their years of heartache and struggle in trying to get this inquest opened would be met with that cynical, cruel amendment from the Tories that we only learned about in the past week.”

He said there was “very real concern” from the family that the inquest would be stopped if it could not be concluded by next May.

He said: “We find the Secretary of State (Chris Heaton-Harris) being in a position of being a partisan cheerleader for the ruthless and morally corrupt legacy litigation Bill that has the potential to take this inquest away from this family before it is concluded.

“Sean Brown’s family fear that the deliberate delaying tactics that have proved so successful for the state agencies to this point will now be continued until their end point of May 1 2024.”

The barrister added: “This continued delay now has a realisable prize. Reach May 1 and the years of stonewalling will have been a success.

“The Brown family ask one simple question of the security forces: If you have nothing to hide why has it taken you 26 years to prove it? Hand over the documentation and let this inquest proceed.”

Speaking outside court, Mr Brown’s daughter Siobhan appealed directly to PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to hand over outstanding material related to the case.

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