In an important breakthrough for collusion victims, the Court of Appeal in Belfast has accepted that the PSNI police is too biased to be in charge of an investigation into the drive-by shooting of a west Belfast woman by plain-clothed British soldiers in 1972.
Mother of one Jean Smyth-Campbell was killed by a single shot to the head as she sat in a car on the Glen Road in June 1972. Evidence later emerged that an undercover British army unit, the Military Reaction Force (MRF), were involved in the killing.
Records uncovered at the National Archives in London in 2014 suggest the MRF fired shots in the area. However, the IRA was falsely blamed by the then RUC police.
During court hearings it was stressed that Mrs Smyth was a wholly innocent person ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
The Court of Appeal has ordered a fresh probe into her death, saying that previous investigations by the RUC/PSNI had failed to meet human rights obligations.
The landmark judgment is expected to have far-reaching implications for other unresolved cases from the conflict, which victims’ families have long warned were never properly investigated.
Margaret McQuillan, the sister of Ms Smyth-Campbell, welcomed the ruling.
She said the PSNI had “contributed to the cover-up” and “lied” to the family in the past.
“I’m over the moon with the decision,” she said. “It’s been 47 years since Jean died, and all we want is to get to the truth.”
The Military Reaction Force was created by the notorious British Army general Frank Kitson. It shot scores of civilians in Belfast in the 1970s as part of a colonial-style strategy to “counter insurgency”.
Research Ciaran MacAirt found the military logs buried inside British archives that appeared to connect soldiers with the killing of Jean Smyth-Campbell. Her family immediately called for an independent investigation. However, the PSNI insisted that they should be in charge, despite having already passed over vital clues.
After years of legal wrangling, appeal court judges have now ruled that the PSNI lacks the “practical independence” to properly investigate the killing.
The family’s lawyer, Niall O’Murchu from Kinnear and Co., said the PSNI had “thrown the kitchen sink at this case, and treated this family with absolute contempt.”
He said that the PSNI Chief George Hamilton, should “hang his head in shame and apologise to Jean’s family.”
Lawyers representing the PSNI had claimed that the PSNI is “institutionally distinct” from its RUC predecessor, and should not be allowed to investigate itself.
In their ruling, judges noted that 27 out of 55 PSNI staff tasked with investigating unresolved killings from the conflict had served in the RUC when it was linked to such deaths. Their legacy unit, the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB), did not have “practical independence” to carry out such investigations, they said.
The court further granted a declaration that the chief constable is obliged to conduct the further investigations into Mrs Smyth’s death in a way which satisfies the State’s procedural obligation under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The landmark judgement also said the passage of time should not act as a barrier in cases where new evidence has come to light.
Jean’s sister Sheila Denvir said the family is relieved to be a step closer to finding the truth - but added the whole family was upset at the PSNI’s legal strategy.
“None of us are getting any younger,” said Sheila, 74. “And with this dragging on for two years I really had started to fear that I’d be up there with Jean before long and having to say to her, ‘I’m sorry, we couldn’t find out what happened’.
“But thank goodness for what’s happened today. We’re so relieved the judgement has come through as it has, but the PSNI have not made this an easy process. All we want is something we’re entitled to - to find out what happened to our sister.”
Mr O Murchu said the decision meant PSNI officers cannot oversee any further probe. He added: “Just a few weeks ago the Chief Constable came out to say the PSNI should not be dealing with legacy cases.
“Yet when this family’s ruling came out loud and clear two years ago, the decision was made to fight that and scrabble back the right to investigate. Why was that? Why did the PSNI make that decision, and frustrate the family’s fight for justice for this young mother who was killed in such a horrifying way?
“For nearly 40 years they thought they knew the truth, they were told the IRA was responsible and they lived their lives in fear within their own community. This appeal has dragged the process out by another two years, and now they want to get to the truth.
“This murder disrupted the family’s entire life, it stole a little girl’s mother from her life and broke her parents’ hearts. They died without ever knowing what happened to their daughter, and the family left behind have a right to answers.”