A police officer paralysed by an IRA landmine and an RUC widow have both voiced concerns about a senior judge involved in Troubles-related investigations.
Jeff Smith, who was gravely injured more than 30 years ago, said a recent report that relayed personal views apparently expressed by Lord Justice Weir in the 1980s was too much to bear without speaking out.
In an account of a private conversation between the judge and an Irish diplomat, Mr Justice Weir was reported to have said the RUC was “worse and more sectarian” than in previous years.
In 1986, the then barrister Reg Weir QC is said to have made the comments to Irish ambassador Noel Dorr – just months after Mr Smith was injured in a terror attack that claimed the life of his colleague Bob Gilliland in Fermanagh.
The remarks were contained in a document marked ‘Secret’ Mr Dorr wrote to the Taoiseach’s office in Dublin following a British Irish Association gathering at Oxford University.
In the declassified files – released by the Irish government in December – the ambassador also wrote: “Weir was absolutely scathing in his judgment of the UDR (some of whom he has defended in specific cases) and highly critical of the RUC.
“He said the UDR was ‘unreformable’. He saw it as the direct successor of the old B-Specials and thought that the only reason for its existence was to keep its members out of worse mischief which they would get up to individually.”
Wheelchair-bound Mr Smith said the comments of the former QC, if reported correctly, would make him “unsuitable to be investigating anything that the police or Army were involved in”.
Mr Smith said: “He has seemed to be trying to hurry legacy inquests along and he commented on funding issues.”
Mr Smith added: “The majority of those cases will be used to investigate the police and Army and UDR and things that they were involved in.”
The injured former officer said it was important that anyone carrying out historic investigations or inquests, including those overseeing investigations, “should have the confidence of everyone including the ex-security force community”.
He added: “But that’s not how I feel and it’s not what former colleagues I talk to feel either.”
Mr Smith said that thinking about legacy issues and attitudes to the security forces had retraumatised him.
“I am paralysed from the waist down and life has just been difficult. Whenever you’re low and mentally annoyed about these things, it’s not a nice way to get up every day. I try not to get annoyed but it’s difficult. Ex-security forces are an easy target because records were kept.”
The widow of a Fermanagh RUC officer murdered by the IRA in a separate incident has also spoken of her concern at the reported comments contained in the state papers.
Phyllis Carrothers’ husband Douglas was an RUC reservist who died when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car in Lisbellaw in 1991.
“My husband served in both the UDR and then the RUC Reserve until his murder on May 17 1991,” she said. “I felt disturbed, and would feel deeply aggrieved if true, about what was reported once the papers were released into the public domain.”
Mrs Carrothers added: “If reported correctly, it just beggars belief that Lord Justice Weir, who has presided over some legacy investigations, made such derogatory remarks about the RUC and the UDR, albeit on a one-to-one basis as he thought, in private, but if he made such derogatory remarks ... I just can’t describe how I felt.”
She continued: “Dougie put on the uniform to serve his community and to guard against the threat and the danger of terrorism – it certainly wasn’t to ‘keep himself out of any worse mischief’ that he might have got into had he not joined.
“This casts a shadow over the [legacy investigation] process. There are questions about whether Lord Justice Weir, in light of all this, is in any position to carry out important roles in reviewing cases. It does not seem appropriate.”
Still haunted by the trauma of terrorist violence, Mrs Carrothers recently moved to England in an effort to find greater peace of mind.
The News Letter asked the office of the Lord Chief Justice about the concerns.
A spokeswoman said: “Lord Justice Weir’s review in relation to the state of readiness of legacy inquests was completed in January 2016. Mr Justice Colton was appointed as Presiding Coroner in February 2016.
“This office has no further comment.”
MOD lambasted over ‘low priority’ of inquest hearings
In January last year while conducting a two-week review of 56 legacy inquests, many involving killings linked to the security forces, Lord Justice Weir was critical about the UK Government’s lack of urgency in releasing documents.
He said the MOD “is not short of money” and added: “It’s busy all over the world fighting wars and it’s about to buy some new submarines with nuclear warheads. This is obviously very low on their list of priorities.”
The cases being scrutinised involved a total of 95 deaths were inquests have yet to be held.
Speaking at the Laganside courts complex in Belfast, the judge is reported as stressing that the holding of investigations was not “optional”.
He said: “It’s not like buying a new Jeep or getting a new regimental mascot. This is not an option – this is an international obligation on the state.”
Justice Weir made his scathing comments after being told the MOD had missed deadlines for disclosing classified documents to the coroners’ courts due to pressures on resources.
The judge was examining the circumstances around the shooting dead of Belfast man Patrick McVeigh by a covert army unit in 1972, as well as that of seven IRA men shot and killed by the SAS, during two separate operations, in the early 1990s.
In one of the cases – involving IRA men Peter Clancy, Kevin Barry O’Donnell, Patrick Vincent and Sean O’Farrell who were shot by the SAS at Clonoe, Co Tyrone, Justice Weir was told the MOD had still not disclosed documents more than a year after committing to do so.
The judge said the under resourcing by the MOD raised questions over the government’s commitment to honour its obligations under international human rights laws.
A News Letter Morning View column at the time – under the heading ‘Republicans plan to use legacy inquests to justify their murders’ – described the judge’s comments as “extraordinary”.
It said “information releases are controlled to protect the security of the state,” and added: “The amount of money allocated to the UK’s armed forces is a matter for the British government and Parliament, as chosen by the public. If the feeling is that that money should be reserved as much as possible for actual defence in these perilous times, rather than – for example – being squandered on legal fees into historic inquests, so be it.
“There is indeed an international obligation to hold inquests into killings in which the state is involved...but apologists for terror plan to use these inquests to legitimise the IRA. Unionists and the Conservative government must work hard to minimise the distortion of the past.”