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29 May 2008 Edition

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Inquest delay as Britain poised to impose secret hearings



By Laura Friel

AN INQUEST into the RUC killing of IRA Volunteer Pearse Jordan in 1992 has been delayed again. The delay comes as the British Government appears poised to impose further legislation which will enable them to hold inquests in secret and presided over by Government-selected coroners.
The legislation is part of the Counter-Terrorism Bill currently making its way through the British Parliament. The Bill was introduced in January of this year and had its second reading in the House of Commons in April.
The provisions of the bill were not initially intended to apply to the North of Ireland but recently a House of Commons committee passed an amendment to apply the provisions to the Six Counties.
The key provisions allow the British Secretary of State to issue a certificate to allow an inquest to be held in secret. The grounds are very broad and included the interests of “national security” in the interests of a relationship with another country and generally within the “public interest”.
In what can only be identified as executive interference, the Bill also allows the Secretary of State to replace the coroner with a specially-selected coroner of their own choosing.
Significantly, the new legislation would impact not only on subsequent inquests but also on inquests already opened but subject to delay such as the Pearse Jordan inquest.
The inquest into the death of Pearse Jordan is one of a number involving controversial killings by British crown forces to have been subjected to repeated and lengthy delay.
According to the campaign and support group Relatives for Justice, the new legislation would impact directly on between 40 and 50 outstanding inquests, all involving British crown forces directly or through collusion.
The British Government came under international pressure to hold inquests after families of the victims successfully brought the matter before the European Court of Human Rights.
In 2001, the European Court castigated the British Government for failing to investigate properly a number of contested killings and ordered new investigations. The Strasbourg court particularly referred to the delay in holding inquests.
Pearse Jordan, a 23-year-old from West Belfast, was unarmed when he was shot dead on the Falls Road by an undercover RUC unit in November 1992. Jordan was shot in the back three times as he staggered out of the car he was driving after it was deliberately rammed by two unmarked RUC vehicles.
Eyewitnesses said the covert unit immediately opened fire without issuing a verbal warning. Despite the fact that the young man posed no threat, there was no attempt made to arrest him.
Speaking at the time, Pearse’s father, Hugh Jordan, immediately called for a public inquiry. “There should be no whitewash over my son’s murder. This was murder, pure and simple, cold-blooded murder,” he said.
Since the killing, the Jordan family have fought a long legal battle to have the RUC officers involved in the killing give evidence in court, a battle they recently won after an appeal to the British Law Lords.
A ruling by the British House of Lords not only compelled those responsible for the killing to attend the inquest but also widened the scope of the inquest to include more than the restricted ‘findings’ of who, when and how.
Announcing the latest delay during a preliminary inquest hearing, senior coroner John Leckey blamed the PSNI and described their failure as “totally unacceptable”.
Voicing his frustration at the further delay of the Jordan inquest, the chief coroner expressed concern regarding other outstanding inquests into controversial killings.
“I dread to think what is going to happen in the other so called legacy inquests when they are going to start from scratch.”
The latest delay emerged after the PSNI, who had been tasked to carry out risk assessments into any potential threat to 13 officers involved in the killing and due to give evidence at the inquest, announced the assessment had not been completed.
Coroner Leckey said the PSNI had failed despite being given eight months to carry out the assessments and, while MI5 had taken over some responsibility, the blame lay “fairly and squarely” with the PSNI.
The coroner gave a deadline of 6 June and warned the PSNI if they were not completed by then he would “proceed on the basis that they do not need a risk assessment”. But even if the PSNI comply within a month, the coroner conceded the inquest would now not take place until January 2009.
Such a delay allows time for the provisions in the British Government’s new Counter-Terrorism bill to be enacted.
At the hearing, a barrister representing the family, Karen Quinlivan complained that a number of crucial documents has still not been made available to her legal team. These included radio logs and debriefing notes from the PSNI.
The barrister referred to the recent House of Lords ruling that there is a duty to “furnish the coroner with police records”.
But a lawyer acting for the PSNI, Tony McGleenan, said there is “a difference of opinion” about the Lords’ ruling.
Patterns of obfuscation have become the hallmark of investigations into contested killings carried out by British crown forces.
Faced with recent successes of families and campaign groups in compelling the British into holding inquests and challenging the restrictions imposed on coroners’ courts, the British Government has responded by introducing further legislation.
Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice warned that delaying tactics by the PSNI in relation to the Jordan inquest could be an attempt to override the British House of Lords ruling.
“It’s not clear if Section 64 of the Anti-Terrorism Bill will be extended to the North of Ireland but it seems more and more likely. So far, British Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has refused to rule it out.
“Relatives for Justice will be rigorously challenging any move towards holding inquests in secret. The provisions in the Bill are in direct breach of Article 2 of the European Charter of Human Rights which requires inquests to be independent, transparent and effective. We will be raising this issue in Europe.”
The RUC and British Army were and are subject to specific rules of engagement. Despite the fact that these rules have often been blatantly ignored, the British state has refused to pursue prosecutions and has consistently engaged in attempts at cover-up, including delaying inquests.

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