Effort to open Britain’s archive of secrets

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The widow of a man shot dead by a British soldier in Belfast 47 years ago has begun a High Court bid to obtain access to documents stored in secret English vaults.

Lawyers representing Isobel Copeland are seeking an order for production of material held at an enormous warehouse operated by contractors in Derbyshire as part of her legal action against the British Ministry of Defence.

She is suing for the alleged unlawful killing of her husband, John Copeland, in October 1971.

Mr Copeland was shot close to his Ardoyne home in the north of the city by a British solder. He died days later. At the time, the soldier claimed Mr Copeland was armed and had opened fire on an army patrol.

But a draft report by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) obtained by his family casts doubt over that version of events. The report also criticises the RUC (now PSNI) police for failing to properly investigate the killing. The HET was told the soldier who fired the shots could not be questioned because he is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The proceedings are expected to be heard in full next year. In a preliminary step, Mrs Copeland’s legal team have started attempts to ensure the preservation of files connected to the case.

They are among 66,000 files which remain classified at the Swadlincote warehouse in Derbyshire and have not been released to the British National Archive, in breach of the usual 30-year rule for declassification.

The hidden archive includes what is described as “hundreds and hundreds of boxes”, each containing about 10 files, that were sent to the warehouse from the north of Ireland four years ago.

One MoD archivist describes it as looking like “the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark”, in which box after box can be seen stretching into the distance.

The application to have the British MoD compelled to produce the relevant material for the Copeland family was adjourned at the High Court.

Lawyer Kevin Winters, representing Mrs Copeland, explained the wider significance of the push.

“This is important for the family because it will provide additional information to assist in the civil action which is pending next year,” he said. “Not only that, but it’s relevant to all military killings during the conflict.”

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