Controversial reports into alleged British security force “shoot-to-kill” deaths in the North should be released to the victims’ families, the High Court ruled today.
Police chief constable Matt Baggott was ordered to disclose the whole of the Stalker and Sampson reports with sensitive areas being potentially omitted. The judgment was delivered by Mr Justice John Gillen in Belfast today.
Delayed inquests dating back almost 30 years are now one step closer to proceeding.
Mr Justice Gillen said: “If inquests are to maintain public confidence, put minds at rest and answer the questions of the families who are bereaved, it is vital to ensure that the interested parties/next of kin can participate in an informed, open and transparent fashion on an equal footing with all other parties throughout the various stages of the inquest including, at the outset of the process, the very scope of the inquest.
“This can only be achieved where appropriate disclosure has been made of potentially relevant material.”
The inquests include the November 1982 deaths of IRA men Sean Burns, Eugene Toman and Gervaise McKerr near Lurgan, County Armagh.
Police fired 109 bullets into the car they were travelling after they claimed it crashed through a checkpoint.
It later emerged the three were suspected of involvement in the killings of three Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers in a bomb a fortnight earlier and had been under observation.
The coroner also plans inquests into the death of Catholic teenager Michael Tighe, shot dead by police at a hay shed near Craigavon, County Armagh in November 1982, and suspected Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) men Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew, shot dead near Armagh in December 1982.
The British government has always denied any “shoot-to-kill” policy existed and has resisted calls from families to look again at what happened.
Former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Sir John Stalker was brought in to investigate. He was later replaced by Colin Sampson, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police.
Police took today’s judicial review to the High Court.
Mr Justice Gillen called for a “generous” approach to disclosure.
“The coroner is constrained by the concepts of fairness, proportionality and transparency inherent in the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” he added.
“I believe it is an entirely rational and proportionate decision for him to conclude that this means that he must permit the families of the deceased to see the entirety of the Stalker and Sampson reports – he having determined them ’generally relevant’- whilst at the same time, recognising the need to protect sensitive material and the Article 2 rights (to life) under the Convention of police officers etc.”
He supported the coroner’s readiness to accept redacted copies of the reports for dissemination to the families to enable the police to make a PII (Public Interest Immunity Certificate) request if the coroner considers those redacted areas relevant to his inquiry and wants them disclosed.
The judge added: “In short I see no impediment in law to the coroner invoking the nomenclature of ’general relevance’, ’potential relevance’, ’core relevance’ etc. and abjuring too technical or pedantic an approach on matters of pure detail.
“I fail to see how in so doing he has acted ultra vires or is in error of law. The Article 2 rights of third parties under the Convention are amply protected in this process.”
Mr Carroll's brother Tommy said: "We families welcome today's strong judgment by Justice Gillen supporting families' right to truth and rejecting the chief constable's attempts at cover-up.''
He added: “We will now have access to the reports which tell us the truth about how our loved ones were killed. And tell us the truth of how their killings were planned and covered up. All we have ever wanted was the truth.”
Sinn Féin Northern Ireland Assembly member John O’Dowd said they had fought a long and difficult campaign.
“It is my hope that the inquests will now proceed and what is seen by many as a deliberate policy of delay and obstruction will come to an end,” he said.
“The families, by their determined actions over many years, have shown that they will not be denied the truth and they will not be denied justice.”