New inquests into the deaths of a number of nationalists killed by British Crown forces in the north of Ireland have been blocked on the grounds that the security of the British state may be implicated.
The shock decision of chief coroner John Leckey to suspend inquests 14 deaths has provoked fury among the families of the victims.
The family of schoolboy Francis Rowntree, the first Irish person killed with a British ‘rubber bullet’, said they will take legal action. Eleven-year-old Francis was shot dead by the British army in April 1972 as he played with friends in west Belfast’s sprawling Divis Flats complex.
In June this year, Six-County Attorney General John Larkin ordered a fresh inquest into the Rowntree killing following new evidence uncovered by the family’s lawyer Padraig O Muirigh.
However, at a preliminary hearing this week, the coroner said that he had received legal advice indicating that only the British Direct Ruler had powers in areas affecting “national security” -- including, controversially the authority to order inquests.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, matters relating to “state security” in the North of Ireland remain under the control of the British Crown, and beyond the remit of the Stormont Assembly.
Francis’s brother Jim Rowntree said the new inquest had given his family hope, which was now being taken away.
“Frank was just an innocent child and yet the army tried to blacken his name saying he was involved in a riot,” he said. “We have already waited over 40 years for justice. The way this has happened without any warning has been a major setback for our family.”
The announcement has also had an impact on other inquests ordered by Mr Larkin since he took up the post of attorney general in 2010. They include the killing of 10 people by the British army in Ballymurphy in August 1971, including a Catholic priest and a mother-of-eight.
Fresh inquests into the killing of north Belfast man Bernard Watt by a British soldier in 1971 and the shoot-to-kill murder of Francis Bradley by members of the SAS in Toomebridge in 1986 are also in jeopardy.
Referring to the Rowntree family yesterday, their lawyer said: “They have waited 40 years to have a proper inquest into the death of their loved one and this development is a step backwards for them.
“Their frustration has been compounded by the fact that the coroner did not give any prior notice before this morning’s preliminary hearing that he was making such a decision.
“We are currently considering a judicial review against the coroner in relation to this decision.”
Paul Pierce, representing the family of west Belfast man Gerard Slane -- who was shot dead by the loyalist UFF in a killing linked to British agent Brian Nelson -- said they too would challenge the coroner’s move.
“This is a case which goes to the very heart of the intelligence services and there already exists within the public domain very disturbing and significant information about Gerard’s murder,” Mr Pierce said.
“The attorney general examined some of that material and rightly in our view exercised his powers to hold a new inquest.”
The Ballymurphy Massacre Families, who have recently launched a high profile campaign for justice, said they were “very upset” by the development, and insisted the inquests into the deaths of their loved ones be reopened.
“We regard the original sham inquests as a serious neglect of duty by everyone involved and leave a lot of questions to be answered,” they said.
“The families believe that these inquests must be held without delay, with significant resources and funding provided to the coroner and the families legal representatives to ensure that all of the facts are known.”
Sinn Fein Assembly member Raymond McCartney said the coroner’s decision was “deeply concerning and upsetting for the families involved who have already waited too long to find out the truth”, while eirigi’s Breandan Mac Cionnaith described the decision as “absolutely shameful”.
“The decision by John Leckey, as senior coroner, to now halt those inquests on the grounds of ‘British national security’ is absolutely shameful,” he said. “Leckey should publicly explain to the family of Francis Rowntree exactly what type of threat an 11-year-old boy could possibly have posed to the security of the British state.”