After a decade of delays and deliberate procrastination, public hearings in the inquiry into the 1997 murder of Robert Hamill are to begin in Belfast next Tuesday. The inquiry team plans to complete its final report by the middle of next year.
Mr Hamill was beaten senseless in Portadown town centre by a loyalist mob in April 1997 as he returned home from a night out with friends. Some of his attackers cried, “Die you Fenian bastard,” as they assaulted him, witnesses reported. Members of the RUC were present but did not intervene.
He died 11 days later in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast with his partner Caroline by his bedside. The couple had two young boys, Shane and Ryan. Three months after he died their daughter Nicole was born.
Members of the extended Hamill family pressed for the inquiry because they believed the RUC seriously and in some instances wilfully mishandled the investigation into the sectarian killing, and believed Mr Hamill could have been saved if the RUC members sitting in a police Land Rover near the murder scene had intervened. The RUC is accused of participating in a subsequent cover-up.
Former British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy set up the inquiry following the recommendation of Canadian Judge Peter Cory.
No one has been convicted of the killing, although it is widely known in Portadown who was involved in the assault, and that some of these people have since taunted the family about the killing.
Human rights group British-Irish Rights Watch has campaigned over the case and this week its director Jane Winter said the inquiry was important to all those who had been targeted because of their religion.
“Robert Hamill’s death was similar to many others in that he was a victim of sectarianism,” she said.
“I don’t believe that the people who attacked him knew who he was but because of where he was coming from and the direction he was walking in, they knew he was Catholic.
“He was a victim of the ‘any Catholic will do’ attitude.”
She said the allegations of RUC complicity must be thoroughly examined.
“It is important that the truth is established,” she said.
“It will speak to many other victims of sectarian attacks.”
The RUC denied the allegations levelled against its officers but Mr Hamill’s case was compared with the racially motivated murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and its investigation by the London Metropolitan Police.
The controversy escalated when the Hamill family’s lawyer Rosemary Nelson was murdered in a loyalist bomb attack in 1999, amid allegations of Crown force collusion in her killing.
Her murder is also the subject of a public inquiry which is being held in the same building as the Hamill hearings.
In 2004 the British government announced plans for a public inquiry into Mr Hamill’s murder following a review of a number of cases by retired Canadian judge Peter Cory but legal issues delayed the public hearings until now.
In November, the British government announced he would not be extending the terms of reference of the inquiry to examine sectarianism and failures within the Public [Crown] Prosecution Service, despite appeals by the Hamill family.
Nevertheless, Ms Winter welcomed the fact that the inquiry could now complete its work.
“Our hope is that there will be no stone left unturned in the search for the truth,” she said.
The inquiry, chaired by former English high court judge, Edwin Jowitt, formally opened in May 2005. The two other members of the inquiry panel are Kathleen Richardson, moderator of the Free Churches Council of England and Wales, and John Evans, a former English police chief.
The Hamill family will be represented at the hearings by Barra McGrory QC and the PSNI by Richard Ferguson QC.