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27 January 2000 Edition

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O'Neill inquest to begin in London

BY FERN LANE

 

After a delay of more than three years, the inquest into the killing of IRA Volunteer Diarmuid O'Neill by the Metropolitan Police is due to open on 31 January at Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Court, South London. Because of the controversy surrounding O'Neill's death, the proceedings are expected to last for a month and in an unexpected development, the Hammersmith Coroner Dr John Burton is, apparently at his own request, to conduct the inquest. Although he was due to retire at the end of 1999, Dr Burton believes that the case is too complex for any new coroner to have been able to assimilate all the details satisfactorily before the start of the inquest.

It was Dr Burton who wrote to the Home Office in October last year, saying that in his opinion the controversy surrounding the shooting justified the setting up of a judicial inquiry. Former Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews also said at the time that the Irish Government supported his request. However, Dr Burton's arguments were rejected by Charles Clarke, a junior minister at the Home Office, after the Metropolitan Police lobbied vigorously against the proposal.

The O'Neill family, who have also made repeated calls for an inquiry, were informed in a letter from the Home Office that ``Mr Clarke has considered the correspondence we have received on this matter from Dr Burton . He is not persuaded that the circumstances justify a judicial inquiry and has advised Dr Burton accordingly.'' In November 1999, shortly after Dr Burton's correspondence with the Home Office, a date for the inquest was announced

The Justice for Diarmuid O'Neill Campaign has pointed out the extreme anomaly of the inquest being held in deepest South London, given that the events in question took place in Hammersmith. They have voiced their suspicion that it is partly an attempt to keep members of their campaign, most of whom are based more centrally, out of the public gallery, and partly an attempt to dampen down press interest in the case. The official reason for the move has been given as ``security considerations''.

In the meantime, the inquest is likely to reveal further controversial information about the events of 23 September 1996. The O'Neill family is to be represented by human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce and barrister Michael Mansfield, QC, whilst the Metropolitan Police have retained the same barrister who represented the force at the inquest of Ricki Reel, a case similar to that of Stephen Lawrence, where the Met has been accused of failing to investigate the murder of a young black man. Diarmuid's brother Shane, who addressed the London Bloody Sunday rally on 22 January to highlight his family's continuing campaign for an inquiry, appealed for as many supporters as possible to attend the inquest proceedings when they begin on Monday.
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