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27 January 2000 Edition

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Relatives call for inquest reform

BY LAURA FRIEL

Sam Marshall was returning home with two other men after signing bail at Lurgan RUC barracks on the night of 7 March 1990 when they were confronted by two masked men carrying AK 47 assault rifles. Two of the three escaped but Sam, injured in the legs and unable to run away, was shot twice in the head at point blank range.

     
It is summary executions we're talking about when we're considering inquests in the North. We're talking about those identified as dissidents or opponents of the state being set up (collusion) and staked out (shoot to kill) or abitrarily shot dead
Martin McCaughey and Dessie Grew died on 9 October 1990 in an SAS stakeout close to some outbuildings at Lislasley, near Loughgall. Over 200 bullets were fired by the ambush squad. No attempts to arrest the two men were made and although a number of weapons were found nearby, relatives said the men were unarmed when they were killed.

Several hundred rounds were fired by the SAS into the car in which Lawrence McNally, Peter Ryan and Tony Doris were travelling in Coagh on 3 June 1991. During the attack, the vehicle burst into flames. A number of weapons were found in the car but the three men were unlikely to have returned fire.

     
Relatives for Justice wants the current inquest system to be scrapped and replaced by a system which has the authority, power and determination to pursue the truth
On 16 February 1992, four IRA Volunteers returning from an operation were ambushed by the SAS in the grounds of St Patrick's church, Clonoe. In breach of the British Army's own regulations, there were no warnings issued by the soldiers before they opened fire. There was no return fire from the IRA unit. One Volunteer raised his hands in surrender. He was gunned down. Local residents described hearing sustained gunfire lasting about ten minutes.

Seventy-six-year-old Roseanne Mallon, from Lisgallon, County Tyrone, was visiting her sister-in-law in Killymolye when a gunman fired through the sitting room window. Cardinal Cahal Daly described the scene after the shooting. ``I was horrified when I saw the gaping holes in the walls created by the bullets. They must have raked the whole place around. The object was to kill anyone who was there.''

This year marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most controversial killings during the present conflict. Sam Marshall, like Roseanne Mallon, died at the hands of loyalist gunmen but evidence which later emerged suggested crown force collusion in both killings. The SAS ambush of nine IRA Volunteers in three separate incidents (Lislasley 1990, Coagh 1991 and Clonoe 1992) share with the aforementioned loyalist killings two distinguishing features. All were highly controversial killings carried out by British and pro British forces and years later inquests into these killings still have not been held.


``We need to effect a positive closure for the families,'' says Mark Thompson of the support group Relatives for Justice. ``We need to give back what was taken from the families, the truth and an acknowledgement of their loss.'' But Mark isn't just talking about the dozen or so families whose bereavement has been further compounded by the denial of an inquest. He is also talking about the hundreds of families for whom the inquest system operating in the north of Ireland provided no answers.

Just over 350 people, the overwhelming majority nationalists, have been acknowledged officially as killed by the state. Another dozen or so deaths attributable to state forces remain unacknowledged. Many of those died, not only in highly contested circumstances, but also in circumstances which were never properly investigated. British restrictions introduced specifically within the Six Counties ensured that inquests, the only forum of disclosure open to families, could only deliver death certificates. The imposition of Public Interest Immunity Certificates further restrict an already grossly limited mechanism.

In a paper commissioned by the British government's own Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in 1992, Professor Tom Hadden wrote of the growing concern ``over the adequacy of the law on inquests in Northern Ireland in so far as it relates to disputed shootings''. The major points of concern Hadden identified included lengthy delays, the difficulty faced by families and their lawyers in pursuing relevant issues, restrictions on the hearing and examining of witnesses and the prevention of inquest juries from returning verdicts. (In a travesty of justice, since the early 1980s, Six-County inquests can only deliver `findings', literal causes of death like loss of blood, gunshot wounds etc.)

Hadden continues: ``The combination of these various shortcomings in the inquest system have led many to conclude that it plays no useful role in the investigation of disputed incidents or in the enforcement of the law on the use of lethal force by members of the security forces. Since most of the problems may be directly related to differences in the law on inquests in Northern Ireland compared to that which applies in England and Wales, some critics of the system have alleged that the law has been deliberately altered to achieve this result.''

And Hadden wasn't alone. The law governing inquests in the Six Counties since the late 1980s had been attracting critical reports from a series of international bodies, most notably Amnesty International, which pointed out that the legislation failed to comply with international standards as set out by the United Nations' ``Principles on the effective prevention and investigation of extra legal, arbitrary and summary executions''.

And it is summary executions we're talking about when we're considering inquests in the North. We're talking about those identified as dissidents or opponents of the state being set up (collusion) and staked out (shoot to kill) or abitrarily shot dead by members of state forces whose personal sectarian hatred or colonial racism is encouraged by a system geared towards letting them off the hook.

``The process starts with the RUC investigating itself or other state forces and then passes on to the Director of Public Prosecutions,'' says Mark Thompson. ``In almost all cases, the DPP complies with the outcome of the RUC's investigation and rules that there is no case to answer. It ends in the coroner's court.''

Relatives for Justice have asked the current Criminal Justice Review to consider the operation of inquests within the context of this whole process. ``Families, lawyers acting for families, human rights organisations and many other independent watchdogs all agree that inquests as they are currently constituted in the Six counties cannot provide an adequate forum for dealing with controversial killings,'' says Mark. ``As things stand, inquests act to conceal rather then facilitate the emergence of the facts.''

In doing so, inquests become part of the process of protecting those whose actions are undoubtedly questionable in relation to domestic and international law regarding the use of lethal force. ``Controversial killings of nationalists have been managed,'' says Mark, ``rather than investigated.''

The fundamental failure of the system to protect the right to life, the systematic corruption of the system to favour state forces and disadvantage those perceived as opponents of the state or dissidents has fostered a culture of abuse, argues Mark. ``The signal it sent to the armed enforcers on our streets said if you shoot anyone the system will stand behind you, and to nationalists it said, you can be arbitrarily shot. Even if you're a child killed by a plastic bullet there will be no redress. To relatives of the victim of state violence, the message was, you are not like the rest of us; your loss cannot be recognised and injustices against you cannot be acknowledged.''

Relatives for Justice believes that in the new political climate generated by the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement all the issues affecting the victims and relatives of victims of state violence must be addressed. The group is calling for the immediate scrapping of the current inquest system and its replacement by a system which has the authority, power and determination to pursue the truth. ``In this new situation, the British government should begin to dismantle its system of repression,'' says Mark. ``A first step would be to help heal the pain of those hundreds of bereaved families forced to endure a system which hid the truth.''

Relatives for Justice is urging the Criminal Justice Review to recommend that the laws and rules governing coroners' courts should be brought into line with internationally recognised standards. This would involve an obligation to hold inquests into all disputed killings, that inquests be held promptly with adjournments kept to a minimum, that juries should sit on all inquests into disputed killings and that legal aid should be available to help families with the cost of legal representation. In addition, the relatives' group contends that all disputed cases should be reopened and new inquests held.

``A positive closure is not only required by the relatives of the victims of state violence but also the entire northern nationalist community,'' says Mark. ``The wounds inflicted upon Irish nationalists by a hostile British state need to be publicly recognised as a violation of human rights. The truth about all these killings must be full acknowledged because without identifying what was wrong in the past how can we put in place mechanisms to safeguard the future?''
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