A legal and political power struggle has broken out involving Six County civil servants, Crown officials, a Sinn Fein Minister and British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers.
A bizarre legal action by the British government means some previously public inquest documents in the North of Ireland are to remain injuncted and under a British secrecy order for at least another month.
It is understood the papers may contain embarrassing revelations of collusion by British forces in the killings of members of the nationalist community.
Villiers has been accused of undermining the Good Friday Agreement after obtaining the High Court order against the Stormont minister in charge of public records, Sinn Fein’s Caral ni Chuilin.
Although the 1998 peace accord ostensibly devolved such powers to the Stormont executive and ended British control over public records, the High Court order has prevented families from seeing inquest documents relating to the killing of their loved ones.
Ms Ní Chuilín had personally delivered the requested papers to Relatives for Justice, a victims’ group representing the families concerned, on Friday afternoon.
Relatives for Justice, acting on behalf of the family of north Belfast man Patrick McAdorey, had made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the North’s Public Records Office for the release of inquest papers relating to the British army shooting of the IRA Volunteer in Ardoyne on August 9, 1971.
Ms Ni Chuilin acted to end an ongoing wrangle between the McAdorey family and officials working for the records office who had blocked the release, apparently on advice from the now discredited police Historical Enquiries Team.
After consulting both Ms Villiers and the Department of Justice about the material, Ms Ni Chuilin said the release should go ahead under Freedom of Information legislation.
Similar FoI requests were also lodged on behalf of the families of Michael Donnelly killed by a British army plastic bullet on August 9, 1980 and 44-year-old mother of two Sarah Ann Larmour, shot dead by the UVF at her home in west Belfast in October 1979.
Ms Ní Chuilín defended her decision, stating that after having taken legal advice from the Six County Attorney General she had concluded there was “no credible or compelling reason for withholding the files”
“I don’t believe the public records office were in a position to make that decision independently, I think that decision was mine to make,” she said.
It is the first time British Crown officials sought a High Court injunction to prevent Ms Ni Chuilin acting to release public records.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said it was concerned at British efforts to interfere with the responsibilities of a devolved minister in serving the rights of local citizens.
“The irony is that these are public records about public inquest and court hearings, which have already been heard and reported in public,” he said.
Comparing the decision to use a High Court injunction to block the families from having access to inquest papers as akin to tactics used by the former East German communist regime, a solicitor for the families, Niall Murphy, said:
“How can inquest papers which were public records in 1972 be considered to be documents likely to affect the administration of justice in 2013?
“This is a ludicrous and illogical contention. The documents are not state security intelligence documents.
“They are public records and the official keeper of public records is the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure who hand delivered the documents to our office, having received advice from the Attorney General.
“That an unelected Secretary of State seeks to challenge this decision creates in my view, an attack on the Good Friday Agreement.”
Relatives for Justice spokesman Mark Thompson said that the families of those involved were deeply upset that the High Court action had now deprived them of public documents relating to the deaths of their loved ones.
“It is an attack on them as victims of the conflict, and on the people who support them,” Mr Thompson said.
“They see it as an intimidation of them in their search for basic facts around the killings of their loved ones. They see it also as an interference with the democratic institutions.”
Journalist Ed Moloney, at the centre of an ongoing legal dispute with the PSNI over archives of interviews involving former political prisoners carried out o behalf of Boston College, said the row over the inquest papers was “a classic example of double standards”.
“The hypocrisy is breathtaking because at the same time these two individuals, [PSNI Chief Matt] Baggot directly and Villiers by virtue of her post in the British government, are demanding that all information in the archives of Boston College relating to a killing carried out by the IRA must be handed over, no exceptions allowed.”
CAMPAIGN FOR TRUTH CONTINUES
Meanwhile, the families of 11 people shot dead by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment over a two-day period in west Belfast in August 1971 were joined by hundreds of supporters on Sunday in a ‘March for Truth’ on Sunday.
The Ballymurphy families have been campaigning for an independent inquiry into the massacre. Among those killed were a pregnant mother-of-eight and a Catholic priest.
The families were joined by relatives of those killed in Loughinisland, Bloody Sunday, McGurk’s Bar and Springhill, west Belfast. Campaigner Briege Voyle said 57 children lost a parent in the massacre.
“Our campaign is not a political one. Our story is a human story of loss, suffering and tragedy. Our loved ones were not gunmen or gunwomen. They were innocent people,” she said.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams told the crowd: “My experience in working with victims’ families has convinced me that only a statutory process of truth recovery facilitated by an acceptable international agency holds any prospect of addressing the needs of victims and families.”
Some people walked out as he got up to speak -- an apparent protest against Sinn Fein’s refusal to support an anti-internment march two days before.
Dolores Kelly of the SDLP also spoke at the event. She said the time had come “to have the truth set free for the Ballymurphy families”.
“It is time to have the innocence of your loved ones fully vindicated. It is time for the horror of what was perpetrated against you fully understood,” she said.
On Saturday Respect Party MP George Galloway met the families before giving a talk about the need for the truth during a speech at Conway Mill in west Belfast.