Relatives storm out of ‘charade’

RELATIVES of three men killed by a British army undercover unit walked out of an inquest yesterday pledging to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Belfastmen John McNeill, Edward Hale and Peter Thompson were shot dead by members of the top-secret 14th Field Intelligence Unit during an attempted robbery at Sean Graham’s betting shop on the city’s Falls Road in January 1990. Reports that a fourth robber survived by posing as a punter were denied by security forces. However, two investigative television programmes and several print journalists claimed not only to have established the existence of the fourth man but also to have linked the three deaths to the theft of army weapons and top-secret army documents from an undercover car the previous month. Solicitor Peter Madden, who represented one of the families at yesterday’s inquest, led the walk-out after telling coroner John Leckey that the hearing was a charade. The inquest went ahead without the families’ counsel being present. Members of the Thompson family refused to attend, claiming the north’s inquest system was “massively restricted” and was not a proper forum to deal with controversial and disputed killings. The findings of an earlier inquest two years ago were overturned in the High Court after the jury was judged to have exceeded its remit by claiming the undercover soldiers were justified in killing the three men. Speaking in the absence of the jury yesterday, Mr Madden asked the coroner not to hold the inquest because of its “restricted scope”. Told by Mr Leckey that the hearing would go ahead, Mr Madden then said he was advising his client not to take part in the proceedings. He said he was concerned “at the way disputed deaths” had been investigated by the public court. “Solicitors have refused to take part in these inquests over the years. We have reached the end of the road as far as fairness is concerned. Public concern will not be vindicated in this court.” He said there had been two television programmes made about the betting-shop killings but “judges have told us that we will not be able to investigate the broad circumstances in this case”. “What is being attempted is that the people who carried out the killings are attempting to justify the killings by restricting scope of the inquest. It is totally unacceptable and it is totally unfair. They must be investigated properly and in full. The inquest procedure at the moment cannot do that. I am not taking part in the process because of the basis unfairness.” Mr Leckey told the solicitor that he “took the view that I am strictly bound by the order of Lord Justice Carswell. “The hearing this morning cannot be used as a forum… I am not prepared to allow the hearing to develop in that way.” Mr Madden then said: “I would ask you to tell the jury to give no weight to statements made by people who won’t come to court and be cross-examined. There are families sitting here in court who have waited for seven years for justice and they are not going to get it in this court. Whatever evidence is presented here, whatever charade – and I use that word with care – and whatever charade in relation to justifying why these men were killed cannot be acceptable to anyone who sees how the evidence is presented in court. “Why hold an inquest? We know how, but we do not know why these men were killed,” he said. Speaking after the walk-out, John McNeill’s partner, Ann Bradley, said she had been “led from court to court” but had yet to find truth or justice. “Again this morning I came in search of justice only to find that two of the soldiers who gave evidence at the last inquest would not be attending this morning.” She said the failure of the two soldiers to attend and be cross-examined by lawyers “only casts more suspicion on an already controversial case that needed answers. “The case will now go to the European Court of Human Rights where it can receive a fair and uninterrupted hearing,” Ms Bradley said. The family of Peter Thompson – who was shot 10 times as he sat unarmed and unmasked in the getaway car – said in a statement there were many aspects of the case not yet examined in open court. “In our case, there clearly exists prima facie evidence to bring charges against those responsible for the killings.” Family members, who have written to Secretary of State Mo Mowlam about the case, said: “To attend today’s inquest would only lend credibility to an already discredited system. It would also be disrespectful to the memory of our son. We will continue to pursue the case in the European Court of Human Rights.” Just five of the 34 witnesses listed – four civilians and a senior RUC officer – were called to give evidence during the inquest. The jury of six men and two women took just under an hour to find that the men were killed during an attempted robbery by an undercover security forces patrol “which was in the area”.