A new inquest into the killing of Francis Bradley has been ordered by the north’s newly appointed Attorney General. Francis Bradley was shot dead in disputed circumstances by the British SAS near Toombridge, County Antrim in February 1986.
The British soldiers who fired the fatal rounds were not required to give evidence during an inquest held in 1987. RUC interviews with other members of the unit were made available but potentially important intelligence evidence was withheld.
Last week John Larkin instructed the coroner’s office to hold a second inquest into the Bradley killing. The announcement came within hours of Larkin taking up his office as the first Attorney General for the north in 37 years. Larkin’s appointment followed the transfer of policing and justice powers and the election of Minister for Justice, David Ford.
Announcing his decision, Larkin said although he had only taken up his post the previous day, he was familiar with the case and had been able to read papers, previously provided by the former British Attorney General Baroness Scotland.
Welcoming the Attorney General’s decision, the Bradley family said they had waited more than 24 years to learn the truth and they were looking forward to hearing the British soldiers who carried out the killing account for their actions.
The family’s solicitor, Fearghal Shiels of Madden and Finucane, said that those directly responsible for the death, who did not appear to give evidence at the first inquest, are now, as a result of a change in the rules, compellable witnesses and will be subject to questions by the family’s lawyers.
20-year-old Francis Bradley from Castledawson was alone, unarmed and posed no possible threat when he was shot eight times in the back and head at close range by an undercover British army unit. Initial reports falsely claimed the 20-year-old had been armed, in the company of other armed men and moving weapons from a dump for the IRA.
The British army claimed that the soldiers who confronted Bradley shouted at him and he turned on them in a threatening manner at which point they opened fire. Forensic evidence established that the victim had been shot in the back, not in the front as the soldiers’ claims implied.
Between 1982 to 1991 there were at least 67 killings by British crown forces in disputed circumstances, many of those involving shoot-to kill operations carried out by undercover units such as the SAS and E4A.
Over a third of those killed were unarmed at the time while others were not in a position to use weapons. Discovered IRA arms dumps became classic crown force stakeouts but most often those killed were shot while unarmed, going towards rather than coming away from a dump.
In the wake of such killings, it became commonplace for British forces to lie about the circumstances often to cover the fact that they were engaging in summary executions.
In later years misinformation was fed to the media via “unattributed” or anonymous sources, immediately framing the incident most favourably for British forces without actually involving them directly in lies.
In this way, British forces, even when the facts belied it, fed the myth of a “clean kill” where death followed an armed encounter with the IRA in which a British unit had “no choice” but open fire rather than make an arrest. Shooting at close range unarmed “suspects” in the head and back does not “fit” into this model of “legitimate” armed action.
The decision by the Attorney General to order another inquest followed a series of successful legal challenges by the families of those killed in disputed circumstances.
In November 2007 a Belfast judge ruled that documents relating to the summary execution of Bradley and two others must be surrendered to the coroner in the event of a new inquest. The documents related to two shoot-to-kill operations carried out by the British SAS and the third a collusion victim.
Daniel Doherty was one of two IRA Volunteers ambushed by the SAS in the grounds of a hospital in Derry in 1984. Medical evidence showed six shots were fired into Doherty as he lay on the ground. Both men had been shot in the head in a classic SAS execution. Gerard Casey was shot dead by a British inspired death squad in 1989.
An earlier judgement by British law lords ruled that the police were obliged to give the coroner all documents in their possession relating to a death.
Last month an attempt by the PSNI to block a decision by senior coroner John Leckey to allow next-of-kin limited access of secret reports into allegations of shoot-to kill was over-turned in Belfast High Court.
Leckey had decided to allow the families of six people shot dead around Lurgan and Armagh in 1982 “edited” access to an investigation carried out by senior British policemen, John Stalker and Colin Stevens. The report has never been published.
IRA Volunteers Eugene Toman, Sean Burns and Gervaise McKerr were shot dead by a covert unit of the RUC in 1982. Michael Tighe was shot dead by the RUC within the same month and INLA men Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew were shot dead the following month.
An application for a judicial review on behalf of the PSNI Chief Matt Baggott said the reports should not be disclosed to relatives and that the coroner’s determination would undermine applications for any public interest immunity certificates, gagging orders often used by the police and state to withhold information.
Presiding Judge Gillen upheld the coroner’s right to use his discretion. If inquests are to maintain public confidence, said the judge, “it is vital to ensure all interested parties can participate in an informed, open and transparent fashion”.
The judge ruled that all parties must be allowed to participate on an equal footing from the very outset of the process.
A statement released by the families’ solicitors welcoming the judgement urged the Chief Constable to disclose the report without further delay.
“It is now over 15 years since this Inquest had to be abandoned by the Coroner because of the then RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley’s refusal to disclose the Stalker / Sampson’s report into the circumstances surrounding these killings. The new Chief Constable should now disclose the report without further delay or prevarication in order that the full truth can finally be established about these events,” said Fearghal Sheils.
Commenting on the ruling, Sinn Féin Assembly member for Upper Bann John O’Dowd said the families of those six men killed by the RUC in North Armagh in the 1980s had fought a long and difficult campaign for the truth.
“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. 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,” he said.