The North’s deputy chief constable has rejected claims officers have deliberately delayed the disclosure of top secret material for legacy inquests to protect former colleagues.
Drew Harris acknowledged there was a “fear” among retired officers that inquests were a way of putting ex soldiers and police on trial, but he refuted allegations the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had exploited the cumbersome redaction process to slow legal proceedings.
He said: “I refute that. There’s no endeavour whatsoever to protect individuals from this process.”
Mr Harris had been summoned to Laganside courts to explain the length of time taken to hand over state files linked to nine deaths during the early 1980s.
The cases involve six people, including IRA men and a Catholic teenager, who were shot dead by the security forces around Lurgan and Armagh in 1982 amid claims there was a deliberate intention to kill them.
Senior coroner John Leckey is also examining the deaths of three Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers who died in a bomb blast in Lurgan weeks earlier, an attack allegedly carried out by the IRA men who were subsequently gunned down - and therefore seen as a potential motivation for the claimed shoot-to-kill policy.
Mr Harris, who was dressed in full uniform, was questioned about the perceived conflict of interest and bias after disclosures that three retired RUC special branch detectives had been recruited to the legacy support unit (LSU) to carry out the complex vetting process.
One of those tasked with redacting data had served alongside 52 people named in the documents while the others served alongside those who were directly involved in the killings, the court was told.
Mr Harris denied that members of the LSU had a “special interest” in protecting former workmates, insisting they held the necessary expertise for trawling through historical files.
“I can see how the allegation could be made, but it is not borne out by their work,” he added.
The deputy chief constable had given evidence to the inquest in September but the hearing was adjourned to allow cross examination by lawyers for the next of kin.
He was also asked about so-called “legacy information seminars” organised by his predecessor Judith Gillespie at the PSNI’s leisure complex at New Forge in south Belfast and facilitated by the Retired Police Officers Association in Northern Ireland.
Mr Harris, who told the Policing Board he had attended two of the meetings, chairing one, said they had been an attempt to “reach out” and “encourage” former officers to engage with coronial inquiries.
He batted away suggestions from Barry Macdonald QC, representing some of the republican families, that the meetings were designed to “brief” retired officers who were “hostile” to the inquest process.
He said: “Being reluctant is not the same as being hostile. There would be a reluctance that we would wish to address in terms of supporting our ex officers in relation to coronial inquiries.”
Meanwhile, Mr Leckey, who is due to retire next year, expressed further concern about the delays in the long-running case.
The coroner said: “It almost beggars belief that this has lasted longer than the duration of World War II and we still are not there.”
The hold-up has been blamed on the requirement to security vet top-secret investigations into the killings that were carried out by Greater Manchester Police Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson, of West Yorkshire Police, in the 1980s but never published.
Karen Quinlivan QC, representing three of the families, said the PSNI had engaged in an unnecessarily cautious redaction process and described it as illogical that information contained in a “best-selling book” was not considered to be in the public domain and had been blanked out of material disseminated to the legal teams.
It also emerged that the PSNI has adopted a different approach to disclosing information for the use in criminal trials compared with inquests.
In an unusual outburst, Mr Leckey demanded a written explanation for the disparity.
He said: “There has never been an answer as to why I am being treated differently to the PPS. I want to make it plain, I expect chapter and verse.”
The case has been adjourned until next month.