A judge has ordered the police to fully explain the purpose of meetings commanders held with ex-officers about inquests into historic Troubles killings.
Mr Justice Weir demanded to know what went on during the “legacy information seminars” to find out if retired policemen and women were prompted on what to say when they appeared as witnesses before a coroner.
“I want to get to the bottom of this,” he told a lawyer for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
“I want to find out what these are about and what’s going on.”
The events, organised by now retired Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie, were held at the PSNI’s leisure complex at New Forge in south Belfast and were facilitated by the Retired Police Officers Association in Northern Ireland.
The judge requested signed statements from officers involved in the seminars during a preliminary hearing for an inquest into the loyalist paramilitary murder of a Co Tyrone pensioner in 1994.
The UVF shooting of Roseann Mallon, 76, as she watched television at a relative’s house in Dungannon is one of dozens of legacy cases still awaiting the completion of inquest proceedings in Northern Ireland.
While the PSNI has recently passed some information to the Coroners Service regarding the seminars, the judge reacted in strong terms when told that details of what was actually said, potentially in the form of speaking notes, had not been provided.
“If you are going to conduct a seminar you will have some sort of speaking note – people don’t just turn up for a chat,” he said.
The judge suggested to barrister Dennis Rooney, representing the PSNI, it would be highly unlikely there was no script.
“Have you been given a script – the ’Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming, what I’m now about to do is tell you what to say when you appear at a legacy inquest...’.
“You don’t invite people to come to a seminar without having something to say to them.”
The judge predicted that any event that potentially informed people what to say at a legacy inquest would not be informal.
“That’s not something that’s going to be dealt with over tea and buns,” he said.
He told Mr Rooney: “We’ll get proper signed statements from people who were engaged in that activity and, in addition, we’ll get speaking notes that were used and if they don’t have them we’ll get a statement as to why they don’t have them.”
He added: “I want to know why they were conducting them, I want to know who asked them to conduct them, I want to know how they were financed.
“I don’t want bland statements, I want full accounts of what the thing was about.”
He gave Mr Rooney until the end of August to provide the statements.
Earlier this month, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris was questioned at the monthly meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast about the seminars.
Mr Harris told the board he had attended two of the seminars, chairing one.
He insisted they were “positive” and aimed at encouraging former officers to engage in legacy matters, including coroners’ inquests.
The officer said police explained at “great length” to retired colleagues the importance of coming forward and engaging with such processes so as “full a picture as possible” could be painted of the incidents.
Mr Harris told the board: “It was about encouraging officers to come forward, it was also explaining, particularly in respect of inquests, what the police service’s responsibility is to the coroner’s court, how we would have to meet those responsibilities, but also how we would support ex-officers who came forward to give evidence both in terms of the legal expertise that is available and support otherwise available from the PSNI, and that touched on areas around, for instance, requests for anonymity and how that might be engaged in the legal process.”