Britain breached the human rights of relatives of two IRA men by failing to promptly investigate their deaths at the hands of the SAS, a European court has ruled.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that the UK authorities also failed the family of a west Belfast man, who sustained fatal injuries when he was beaten by riot police, in the same way.
Judges criticised the lengthy delays in holding inquests into the 1990 shootings of IRA members Martin McCaughey and Desmond Grew in Loughgall, Co Armagh, and into the death of John Hemsworth in 1998, six months after he was beaten by police in Belfast.
Inquests into both incidents were only heard within the last two years, with issues such a disclosure of security force papers the source of many hold-ups.
The court upheld complaints by the families of the three men that the cases were subject to excessive investigative delays and, as a consequence, found the UK guilty of “procedural violations” of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to life.
But judges ruled as inadmissible the families’ substantive complaints that the violent actions of the security force personnel involved were not justified and constituted “substantive violations” of the men’s right to life and that the UK also contravened Article 13 – the right to an effective remedy.
The court said it was premature to examine such claims as judicial proceedings in domestic UK courts were still not exhausted, noting that civil proceedings were ongoing and future judicial, investigative or criminal proceedings were still a possibility in the North.
Those rulings in respect of the substantive claims effectively leave the families open to re-lodge the complaints at a future date.
In regard to the upheld complaints, the court ordered the UK state to pay €20,000 in damages for loss and suffering (non-pecuniary) to Mr Hemsworth’s family along with €11,000 for costs and expenses.
The families of Mr Grew and Mr McCaughey made no claim for non-pecuniary damages and were awarded €14,000 for costs and expenses.
The two IRA men were killed in a hail of bullets when troops opened fire on them near farm buildings.
The high-profile case became one of a number where security forces faced so-called “shoot to kill” allegations that they had secretly planned to kill IRA members without any attempt to arrest them.
The troops had a mushroom shed near Loughgall under surveillance amid suspicions a stolen vehicle inside was to be used for terrorism.
Shortly after midnight on 9 October 1990, Grew and McCaughey arrived at the scene. The men were armed with AK47 rifles, and wore gloves and balaclavas.
A soldier opened fire claiming he feared his life and the lives of his colleagues were in danger.
Other troops said they returned fire at sparks they believed were muzzle flashes coming from armed IRA members.
It emerged the republicans did not shoot and the soldiers later said they were firing at flashes they subsequently realised were caused by their own bullets.
Mr Grew sustained a number of bullet wounds as he lay on the ground dying.
But last year an inquest jury found that the SAS soldiers involved acted in a “controlled and professional way”.
Mr Hemsworth, 38, died in hospital from a brain haemorrhage on new year’s day in 1998.
In July the previous year the father of one, who was born in the USA, had been beaten by riot police in west Belfast as he walked home from a GAA club.
His family maintained that he was an innocent by-stander subjected to an unjustified attack by police pursuing other people.
An inquest in 2011 found that Mr Hemsworth most likely died as a result of injuries sustained at the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
A spokeswoman from the ECHR said: “The court declared most of the applicants’ complaints inadmissible as premature and/or on the ground of a failure to exhaust domestic remedies because the investigations were still pending and domestic law required, since 2011, that those investigations be conducted in accordance with Article 2 of the Convention.
“The admissible complaints concerned the procedural aspect of Article 2 namely, the length of the investigations which had lasted for 23 years in the McCaughey case and 13 years in the Hemsworth case.
“It held that there had been a violation of Article 2 (procedural investigation obligations) in both cases on account of the excessive investigative delays.
“The court further noted that the investigations, notably the holding of ’legacy inquests’, into killings by the security forces in Northern Ireland had been marked by major delays and that such delays remained a serious and extensive problem.”
Solicitor for the Grew and McCaughey families, Fearghal Shiels, welcomed the ruling.
“This judgment has vindicated the position of the families, describing their repeated successful legal challenges to secure disclosure of all relevant documents as ’demonstrably necessary’ in order to progress the inquests and to define important points of law relating to inquest procedure in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The court has declined at this juncture to rule on other contentious issues which occurred during the course of the inquest as these are currently the subject of judicial review proceedings before the domestic courts, but has left it open for these complaints to be re-introduced before the Strasbourg court if necessary upon the conclusion of those domestic proceedings.”