British state agencies have been called out for delaying the release of information about the murder of County Derry man Sean Brown so an inquest cannot be completed.
At a review hearing in the inquest into his death, the barrister for the Brown family described the PSNI’s failure to hand over Crown force documents around the murder as “a disgrace”.
Mr Brown, a Gaelic sports official, was abducted and killed by loyalists as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in May 1997. No-one has ever been convicted of his murder. The inquest began in March.
A number of nationalist politicians, including Sinn Féin’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill, were present in Belfast to support the Brown family during the review hearing.
PSNI barrister Mark Robinson said that a ‘public immunity interest’ secrecy process was to be carried out and said it should be “conducted properly”.
He told the court that he believed that dates “cannot be met” within the court’s timetable for the work to be completed and called for a further delay.
However, this was rejected by the coroner. “I can’t allow the internal processes, however difficult they are, to dictate the path of this inquest,” he said.
He called for all information relating to the murder to be disclosed to the inquest without further delay.
Michelle O’Neill welcomed the decision, but noted at amendment to new legislation, introduced by the British government last week, requires that all ongoing conflict-related inquests, other than those at the point of verdict, will cease on May 1 2024.
“The British government’s legacy bill, which will shut the door on access to truth and justice for so many families, must be scrapped now,” she said.
“The Brown family have campaigned with dignity and determination for 26 years, and I will continue to support them in the time ahead.”
The barrister for the Brown family Stephen Toal, said the PSNI position was an “insult” to the Brown family.
He said: “The PSNI and the security forces have had 26 years to collate those documents.
“The prominence afforded to this inquest arises from the depth of feeling within the wider community about this horrendous murder and the way this proud family have been treated to this point.
“Today in court we see an outpouring of support for this family.”
Referring to the announcement this week of the amendment to the legacy Bill, Mr Toal said: “It did come as quite a shock to the Brown family to learn that all of their years of heartache and struggle in trying to get this inquest opened would be met with that cynical, cruel amendment from the Tories that we only learned about in the past week.”
He said there was “very real concern” from the family that the inquest would be stopped if it could not be concluded by next May.
He said: “We find the Secretary of State (Chris Heaton-Harris) being in a position of being a partisan cheerleader for the ruthless and morally corrupt legacy litigation Bill that has the potential to take this inquest away from this family before it is concluded.
“Sean Brown’s family fear that the deliberate delaying tactics that have proved so successful for the state agencies to this point will now be continued until their end point of May 1 2024.”
The barrister added: “This continued delay now has a realisable prize. Reach May 1 and the years of stonewalling will have been a success.
“The Brown family ask one simple question of the security forces: If you have nothing to hide why has it taken you 26 years to prove it? Hand over the documentation and let this inquest proceed.”
Mr Brown was attacked and beaten by a loyalist paramilitary gang on May 12 1997 and put in the boot of his own car. He was taken to a country lane outside Randalstown in County Antrim where he was shot six times. His family suspect the Crown Forces colluded in the killing.
In the 26 years since his death, almost 40 hearings have been held, but the inquest has been continually frustrated by constant delaying tactics by the state.
The vast majority of those hearings were attended by Mr Brown’s son Damian, who died in 2021 after a short illness. In a statement, the Brown family said they were “devastated” at the prospect of a further delay.
“Our mother was as stoic and dignified as we have ever known her to be, when she gave evidence and testimony as to the memory and legacy of her husband Sean, in March of this year.
“To attend the High Court and give evidence, took weeks of preparation and fortitude, as well as weeks of comfort and recovery afterwards. It was emotionally exhausting to have to endure the pain of sitting in court and listen to the opening statement which outlined how our father died.”
Deadlines for disclosure had been routinely ignored.
“The court set strong deadlines for compliance with disclosure obligations, yet these have been ignored by the police and the MoD,” they said.
“Their failure to comply with the court’s directions has had the effect of us losing two precious days of court hearings.”
The family hit out at the PSNI and British Ministry of Defence for ignoring the court.
“Our fear is that they knew that their government was preparing yet again, to change the goalposts in their favour, and they effectively ignored the court, abandoned their obligations to us, knowing that all they have to do, is to cling on, until May 2024, less than a year away, and their government will close this inquest and with it preserve the state’s secrets as to their role in Sean’s murder,” they said.
Paul O’Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre said the process had “dragged on for years” but had now reached “a defining moment”.
“Any further delays by the PSNI and MoD in supplying documents could result in this inquest being stopped in May 2024. Words cannot describe how cruel this would be and the damage that this would cause.
Senior GAA figures also attended Tuesday’s preliminary hearing and have vowed to raise the matter at the highest level in the sports organisation.
Former Police Ombudsman Dame Nuala O’Loan also spoke out. She said Mr Brown’s family has “endured not only the agony of his terrible death but also the anguish of long years waiting to find out all the facts surrounding his murder”.
“Unless their inquest is heard before May 2024, and if the Legacy Bill is passed, their case could only be dealt with by the ICRIR which does not even have the information retrieving powers of an inquest.
“This is a travesty and the ongoing pain of Mrs Brown and her family will be terribly exacerbated.
“How can a civilised society fail so utterly in its obligations to the families of those murdered during the Troubles?”