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8 June 2000 Edition

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A handful of dust

BY LAURA FRIEL

The life of a northern nationalist isn't worth a handful of dust. That's the truth that nationalists in the north hoped the Good Friday Agreement might begin to address. But this week that hope has been further dashed:

First by the Appeal Court quashing of the conviction of Garfield Gilmour for the sectarian murder of three Catholic children, the Quinns of Ballymoney. And then by the Chief Coroner's announcement that there will be no inquest into the death of Robert Hamill, a Portadown Catholic kicked to death by a loyalist mob.

On 12 July 1998 the sectarian petrol bomb attack in which three brothers, Richard (11), Mark (10) and Jason (9) were burnt alive shocked the world. The killing of the three Quinn children, their screams as they died in the inferno which had been their home, was an ``appalling barbarity'', but barely two years after their deaths the Six Counties' Chief Judge has chosen to compound rather than condemn that barbarity.

Petrol bombing houses was regrettably common, said Judge Robert Carswell, but only rarely were people injured and most caused only minor damage. It would be difficult to be certain Gilmour intended the attack to cause any more than ``a blaze which might do some damage'' and intimidate the occupants into moving house.

The UVF gang, of which Garfield Gilmour was a part, drove to the home of a Catholic family living in a Protestant area. Gilmour saw the petrol bomb glistening in one of their hands. The bomb contained an unusually large amount of petrol.

After the attack he chauffeured the gang around the estate for ten minutes before returning with them to the Carnany estate to watch the blaze. But according to Judge Carswell, the UVF gang didn't really intend to do any harm. It was only a little harmless intimidation.

``There is not sufficient evidence to conclude that [Gilmour] was aware that the petrol was contained in an unusually large bottle which might be expected to cause a larger conflagration and result in greater danger to the occupants,'' ruled Carswell.

This is the same judge who, while presiding over the video show trials of the Casement Accused, accused a man with severe learning disabilities, Patrick Kane, of deliberately appearing less intelligent than he really was.

Carswell convicted Kane of murder on the grounds that he must have had it in his mind that one of the possible outcomes was that the two British soldiers would be killed. Gilmour, however, confesses to murder but didn't know what was going on.

Meanwhile the decision by the Coroner's office to deny the Hamill family an inquest into the death of Robert Hamill underscores the inability of the Six-County state to deliver justice for nationalists.

Sinn Féin Upper Bann Assembly member Dara O'Hagan slammed the decision as a disgrace. The state has failed Robert Hamill and his family since the night he was brutally murdered in April 1997, she said.

Announcing his decision, Chief Coroner John Leckey described the circumstances surrounding Hamill's death as ``profoundly disturbing'' and would in other circumstances ``undoubtable require that an inquest be held''.

But in consideration of ``concerns for the safety of certain witnesses''whose ``lives would be placed in danger if their evidence were to be given at, or placed in documentary form before an inquest'', the coroner found an inquest should not be held.

``This latest decision strengthens the case for a totally independent inquiry,'' says O'Hagan, ``From the night Robert was murdered, the actions and inaction of the RUC and justice system has underlined the inherent sectarian system of justice in the Six Counties. We cannot allow the cover up of Robert's murder to go unchallenged.''

The Hamill family will meet Bertie Ahern in Dublin on Thursday, 8 June, to again press their case for an independent public inquiry into the killing.
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