The North’s most senior coroner has warned he will consider taking legal action against PSNI Chief Hugh Orde if he refuses to hand over police files relating to the killing of six unarmed people.
On Tuesday, senior coroner John Leckey reopened the inquests of the six who were shot dead by undercover RUC police units in planned attacks in north Armagh in late 1982.
IRA Volunteers Sean Burns, Eugene Toman and Gervaise McKerr were killed near Lurgan on November 11 1982 when the RUC unit fired 109 bullets into their car.
Two weeks later 17-year-old Michael Tighe was shot dead at a hayshed near his home at Ballyneery outside Craigavon. IRA explosives had been hidden in the shed but Michael Tighe was an innocent victim. A secret MI5 recording of the killing subsequently went ‘missing’.
On December 12 1982 RUC officers opened fire on a car containing INLA Volunteers Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew outside Armagh city.
It later emerged that the men had been under police surveillance during the day they were killed.
All six were shot by the same RUC unit and were unarmed at the time of their deaths.
It later emerged during the trial of one RUC man charged with the killings that its members had been ordered to lie under oath.
The admission led to then deputy chief constable of Manchester John Stalker being asked to investigate the killings.
However, Mr Stalker was dramatically suspended from duty shortly before he was due to deliver a damning report.
He was later cleared off all charges but never returned to Ireland.
West Yorkshire deputy chief constable Colin Sampson took over the ‘shoot-to-kill’ investigation, however neither man’s report was ever made public.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the inquests into the ‘shoot-to-kill’ episode were repeatedly tied up in protracted legal wrangling.
As many as five different coroners have been involved in the ‘shoot-to-kill’ inquests over a 25-year period.
In 1994 Leckey abandoned the ‘shoot-to-kill’ inquests after then chief constable Hugh Annesley refused to allow him access to the Stalker or Sampson reports.
However, a series of legal victories won by the six victim’s families in recent years are understood to have led Mr Leckey to unexpectedly reopen the inquests yesterday.
Successful legal challenges by the families mean that PSNI officers can now be compelled to give evidence at an inquest.
The PSNI chief is also now compelled to allow the coroner access to sensitive police intelligence files relating to the inquests.
In what is being seen as a sign of his increased powers Mr Leckey said yesterday that he saw no reason why Orde could not now provide him with the Stalker and Sampson reports.
“I see no reason why I should not now be provided with access to both reports,” he said.
Mr Leckey asked Orde’s legal representative Bernard McCluskey to “confirm that I, my team and Mr Stalker and his team will be provided with access to the Stalker report and that I, my team and Sir Colin Sampson will be provided with access to the Sampson report”.
Mr McCluskey replied that “an investigation of the repercussions of disclosure” was at present being undertaken by the PSNI.
“The chief constable has not yet made a decision about the need for disclosure,” he said.
However, the coroner warned that any attempt to withhold the Stalker or Sampson reports would be likely to lead to him taking High Court action to force the chief constable to hand over the files.
Speaking outside the court Gervaise McKerr’s son Jonathan called on the chief constable to finally allow Mr Leckey access to the ‘shoot-to-kill’ reports.
“Hugh Orde now has the opportunity to show that he is prepared to allow policing to be open and transparent,” he said.
“Mr Leckey has asked for the Stalker/Sampson reports and there is no reason why he shouldn’t have them.”
Roddy Carroll’s brother Tommy said that the families were satisfied that the coroner now had strong enough powers to compel police officers to give evidence in court.
“We are calling on Hugh Orde to do the right thing and to hand over all the relevant documents to Mr Leckey,” he said.
“If he refuses to allow Mr Leckey access to Stalker and Sampson you have to ask yourself what is he hiding?”
Relatives for Justice spokesman Mark Thompson called on Orde to provide the coroner with immediate access to the reports.
“These families have waited long enough,” he said.
“It’s time for Hugh Orde to lift the roadblock on John Leckey getting the proper access to the reports that he needs.
“It is time for Hugh Orde to do the right thing.”
Sinn Fein assembly member John O’Dowd accused the chief constable of trying to ‘derail’ the families’ search for truth.
“Not only is he challenging the right of the inquest to go ahead and the coroner but he is also trying to block disclosure of the Stalker and Sampson Investigations into these shoot-to-kill incidents,” he said.
RUC MAN ‘ON THE RUN’
The family of an IRA man shot dead by the RUC last night hit out after it emerged that the police killer who fired the fatal shots had disappeared.
Pearse Jordan was shot dead by an undercover RUC unit as he drove along the Falls Road in west Belfast in November 1992. Jordan was shot three times in the back as he attempted to run away from the vehicle.
The original inquest into the killing was halted on a number of occasions after the Jordan family refused to accept the coroner’s ruling that members of the British Crown forces did not have to give evidence in person.
Those laws were only changed in 2001 after the European Court of Human Rights found that the British government had failed to properly investigate 12 state killings.
Earlier this year the House of Lords ruled that the RUC and British Army were legally obliged to allow a coroner to view all intelligence documents relating to inquests.
However, at the reopening of the Jordan inquest yesterday, senior coroner John Leckey was told that the officer who fired the fatal shots, identified only as sergeant ‘A’, could not be compelled to give evidence at the inquest because he could not be found.
Outside the court Mr Jordan’s father Hugh questioned the police’s inability to find one of their own number.
“I find it very hard to believe that the PSNI do not know where this man is,” he said.
“Is the PSNI saying that this man is not receiving a police pension?
“We have been fighting for justice for Pearse for 15 years and we’ll go on for another 15 years if that is what it takes.”