24 February 2000 Edition
O'Neill inquest disgrace
Coroner warns jury not to make a ``martyr''
The jury at the inquest in the shooting of Diarmuid O'Neill returned a verdict of lawful killing on Friday, 18 February. Although the verdict did not come as a surprise, Diarmuid's family and members of the Justice for Diarmuid O'Neill campaign are nevertheless bitterly disappointed with the outcome. They are particularly angry that all the members of the Metropolitan Police force who took part in the raid or who were involved in the planning of it told the court that they would not, given another opportunity, do anything differently, and that they did not believe there were any lessons to be learned from the tragic outcome of the operation.
The coroner told the jury that should they decide to return a verdict of unlawful killing, they would make a ``martyr'' of O'Neill and imply that the campaign of which he was a part was justified
The family were also dismayed by the conduct of the coroner, Dr John Burton, who, in an extraordinary move, decided to address the jury after he had already made his summing up and immediately before they retired to make their decision.
He told them that should they decide to return a verdict of unlawful killing, they would make a ``martyr'' of O'Neill and imply that the campaign of which he was a part was justified. He then brandished a piece of the Justice for Diarmuid O'Neill campaign's headed notepaper and pointed out to the jury that the O'Neill family's legal representative, Michael Mansfield QC, is listed on it as being a supporter of the campaign. This led to a furious exchange between Burton and Mansfield after the jury had been sent out. Burton insisted that he would not retract his comments and was ``prepared to take the consequences'' of making them.
After the verdict, Burton told the court that the law ought to be changed in order to protect police officers from being subjected to prolonged questioning in court in similar cases, saying: ``Society has required the police officers to take risks on our behalf. I have subjected them to three weeks' sustained attack without the protection afforded by the criminal court, with no pretence of natural justice, and there is nothing that I can do about it.''
After the verdict, the O'Neill family issued a statement saying:
``Our son was shot in the middle of the night when he had been woken from a deep sleep. He was in his underpants. He was unarmed. An MI5 recording tape was running at the time in the room he was in. We can hear on the tape police officers shouting orders and we can hear Diarmuid obeying those orders. He was told to open the door, which he did, and he was shot as soon as he obeyed.
``It is no comfort to us to know that the officer who shot him had, according to him, eyes streaming, difficulty breathing, and that the CS gas he was inhaling was causing him to choke. Nor is it any comfort to us to know that the key meant to open the door of the room wouldn't work, or that an enforcer did not open the door but punched a hole through the door instead, or that CS gas was fired through the door but blew backwards into the face of police officers, or that the police officer in charge and most of the others had to run outside, since most of them did not have respirators with them. We have learned in the inquest that the most senior officers who decided to storm the room in the middle of the night made a last minute decision to use CS gas, a concentrated strength hitherto unused, but that this was never conveyed to those officers who went into the building.
``Even more upsetting, we have learned that [immediately prior to the raid] the most senior officers at Scotland Yard decided to show firearms officers a video of the aftermath of the explosion at Canary Wharf.
``We have no doubt that the police, and events in which they were involved, had become totally out of control. But this is not how they describe it themselves. The most senior officers in charge, including the acting head of the Anti-Terrorist Squad, have said that they would not do it again in any other way. They even state that the operation was a success. Almost all the officers involved are still in place doing the same jobs.
``We are very conscious that nothing can bring our son back to life. But all of this could happen again. Our son is not the only unarmed person who has been shot by armed officers in recent years in London. Now that this inquest has finished and has uncovered decisions and actions that the police clearly are content to repeat, we suggest that a different form of public inquiry be held which can investigate all recent fatal shootings by armed police in order to ensure that lessons are learned, whether or not the police voluntarily agree.''
Afterwards, Eoghan O'Neill told An Phoblacht that his family had been left exhausted by the experience of the past three weeks and that they would have to take some time to consider whether or not to launch an appeal.
The conduct of the police and their response to questioning in court, particularly in relation to the tape, together with the comments of the coroner to the jury, has raised several serious questions about the validity of both the conduct of the inquest and it's outcome.
For example, despite the indisputable instruction heard on the tape to ``shoot the fucker'', each police officer in turn, when questioned, denied saying the words. They also consistently denied having heard Diarmuid telling them he was unarmed and giving up. A further serious inconsistency lies in the fact that, when the tape initially became public, the Metropolitan Police quickly issued a statement claiming that the words shouted were not ``shoot the fucker'' but ``shut the fuck up''. They did not explain in court, however, how it could be that police officers could tell a man they could not hear to shut up.
So far as the use of CS gas is concerned, police guidelines state that it should not be used if the target is likely to be armed. So, either the Metropolitan Police ignored their own guidelines or knew full well that there were no arms in the house. Finally, the police's own insistence that the operation was a success and that they would do the same again in similar circumstances leads to a strong suspicion that the outcome of the raid could have been what was planned all along.
In respect of what amounts to an instruction by the coroner to the jury to return a verdict of lawful killing, campaigners believe that this was a clear attempt to put an end to the campaign for justice for the O'Neill family. What Dr Burton was, in effect, saying was, `never mind the evidence, think about the politics'.