Virtual reality computer technology will be used to investigate allegations that police in the North failed to protect a Catholic man beaten to death in a sectarian attack, it was revealed today.
Robert Hamill died in 1997 after he was attacked by a loyalist mob during a night out with friends, but claims that police at the scene failed to save him and later staged a cover-up will now be examined by a public inquiry.
More than a decade after the 25-year-old was targeted in the centre of Portadown, Co Armagh, the inquiry’s hearings will begin next Tuesday, with a final report expected by the middle of next year.
Today, officials unveiled facilities at the Interpoint Centre in Belfast where 160 witnesses – including the police officers at the centre of the allegations - will give evidence with the help of a computerised virtual reality reconstruction of the scene where the attack took place.
The human rights group British-Irish Rights Watch has campaigned over the case and today its director Jane Winter said the inquiry was important to all those who had been targeted because of their religion.
“Robert Hamill’s death was similar to many others in that he was a victim of sectarianism,” she said.
“I don’t believe that the people who attacked him knew who he was, but because of where he was coming from and the direction he was walking in, they knew he was Catholic.
“He was a victim of the ’any Catholic will do’ attitude.”
She said the allegations that police officers from the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at the scene failed to save Mr Hamill and subsequently frustrated the search for the truth must be thoroughly examined.
“It is important that the truth is established,” said Ms Winter.
“It will speak to many other victims of sectarian attacks.”
The technology to be used in the inquiry is the same as that used in the Saville Inquiry that examined the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry.
A computer image recreates the street scene as it was at the time of the attack on Mr Hamill, allowing witnesses a full panoramic view of the area, the surrounding streets and the position of the police Land Rover from where officers are said to have witnessed the fatal assault.
The RUC denied the allegations levelled against its officers, but Mr Hamill’s case was nevertheless compared with the racially motivated murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and its investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
Mr Hamill’s death became a major political issue at a time when nationalists were demanding radical reform of the RUC, which has since been replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
The case was kept in the public eye by the Hamill family and its solicitor Rosemary Nelson.
But the controversy escalated when Mrs Nelson was murdered in a loyalist bomb attack in 1999, amid allegations of security force collusion in her killing.
Her murder is also the subject of a public inquiry which is being held in the same building as the Hamill hearings.
In 2004 the Government announced plans for a public inquiry into Mr Hamill’s murder following a review of a number of cases by retired Canadian judge Peter Cory, but legal issues delayed the public hearings until now.
In November, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward announced he would not be extending the terms of reference of the inquiry despite appeals by the bereaved family.
Ms Winter was critical of such delays in the case, but welcomed the fact that the inquiry could now complete its work.
“The impression we have is that the inquiry team have prepared very thoroughly,” she said.
“Our hope is that there will be no stone left unturned in the search for the truth.”
Leading counsel to the inquiry Ashley Underwood QC will lead the questioning of witnesses in an investigation which has so far cost £18.8m (€20.4m), but which officials estimate will have a final bill of £36m (€39.1m).
The Hamill family will be represented by Barra McGrory QC, while the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be represented by Richard Ferguson QC.
The Robert Hamill Inquiry will be chaired by former English High Court judge Sir Edwin Jowitt, who will be assisted by former chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Sir John Evans and moderator of the Churches’ Commission for Inter Faith Relations the Rev Kathleen Richardson, Baroness Richardson of Calow.