Part of the centre of Portadown was sealed off on Thursday night to allow the family of Robert Hamill, as well as members of a public inquiry investigating his murder, to view the area where he was fatally beaten by a loyalist gang.
After almost a decade of campaigning in the face of countless delaying strategies, the British government agreed to hold the inquiry, but only under legislation which allows them to conceal information which might harm the British state interest.
The inquiry’s public hearings began on Tuesday, and the victim’s relations and inquiry staff viewed the scene, which included a PSNI police Land Rover similar to the one which was parked nearby at the time of the fatal assault.
An inquest was never held into his death, but the inquiry has heard he suffered major head injuries, akin to those endured in a car crash.
No-one has been convicted of murdering Mr Hamill but the opening session of the inquiry heard that within days of the killing, an RUC police officer was assisting one of the alleged killers to conceal potentially incriminating evidence.
“We are very hopeful we are going to get to the truth,” the murdered man’s sister Diane said.
“If there were any mistakes made, we want those to be acknowledged, but if there were any deliberate actions taken to allow the people that murdered my brother to walk free, if anyone helped them, we need that to be exposed,” she said.
Mr Hamill’s inquiry is taking place in Belfast’s Interpoint Centre, where a public inquiry into Rosemary Nelson’s death is already being held.
Ashley Underwood QC, lead counsel for the inquiry, outlined the case at the opening of the inquiry.
“By May 10 1997 the RUC had the identities of a number of Protestants who were said to have murdered Mr Hamill,” he said.
“Further, it had evidence that one of the reserve constables in the Land Rover, [Robert] Atkinson, had protected one of them, by telling him to get rid of his clothing and by keeping him updated about the investigation.
“However no-one has been convicted of murdering Mr Hamill and only one person was convicted of affray arising out of the attack on him.
Martin Woolfe, junior counsel for the PSNI denied Mr Hamill’s murder was treated differently because of sectarianism within the force.
It was after dark when last night’s event got under way at around 7.30pm yesterday evening. The area was largely quiet, although one member of the public said to the visitors: “You’re bringing up the past.”
The junction in the centre of Portadown is well known as a sectarian flash point and the police unit had been sent to the area to watch for violence. Tensions in the County Armagh town were elevated throughout the late ‘90s as a result of the Drumcree march controversy.
The family said they were struck by the clear view of the area which was available from inside the RUC/PSNI vehicle when it was parked at the junction of Woodhouse Street and Market Street, the approximate position of where it was at the time - only a few yards from where Mr Hamill was killed.
Ms Hamill said: “This brings into sharp perspective how close it all was.”