Northern Ireland’s senior coroner has expressed embarrassment at the time some inquests are taking and said those into the London bombings of 2005 had been dealt with quicker.
Full hearings into the deaths of republicans and police officers killed in disputed circumstances in Mid Ulster 30 years ago may not begin for months or even years, lawyers told a coroner’s court.
Delays have dogged the disclosure of documents used in deciding which witnesses to call or issues to address. The coroner’s service is still awaiting a separate decision from the Stormont administration on funding for an investigator to consider voluminous files dating back decades.
Senior coroner John Leckey said: “Time is passing on and when I look back at how long ago I started this process, it is 2007, and we are seven years on.
“Looking at how difficult inquests have been held in England I feel embarrassed, the London bombings, Princess Diana, we all know these big inquests.
“They have dealt with similar issues and the inquests have been held.”
The coroner’s court in Belfast was considering legal matters surrounding inquests into nine deaths affected by alleged security services’ shoot-to-kill policies. They included Gervaise McKerr, an IRA man shot by a special Royal Ulster Constabulary unit in 1982.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has already come in for heavy criticism for protracted delays in disclosing documents linked to the inquests.
They include files from the long-classified investigations into the killings by Greater Manchester Police deputy chief constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson, of West Yorkshire Police.
Mr Leckey’s lawyer, Frank O’Donohue QC, said it was unsatisfactory that the exhaustive disclosure process involving security checks will not be complete until the end of this year.
A senior police officer at the rank of assistant chief constable could be called to give evidence about the delay.
Mr O’Donohue said: “Consideration is going to have to be given to the need to call witnesses from the PSNI to account for what is a wholly unsatisfactory state of play.”
He said officials from Stormont’s justice department could also be called to account over delays in the appointment of an investigator to help the coroner pursue evidential leads.
He added: “Unfortunately we seem to be very far away from the imminent appointment of an investigator as it goes through the Government processes that would justify funding for such an appointment.
“The public has a right to know that the commencement date of these inquests may well be affected by the continuing resourcing issues that relate to the appointment of this person.”
The coroner said: “It would be wrong if I was only able to exercise my judicial functions on the basis that I have a satisfactory business case.”
Mr O’Donohue added: “This issue continues and will continue but it will be brought up...at every preliminary hearing. It may be the need to call people to account is before the court.”
NIO ministers can authorise the keeping of some details secret from an inquest in the interests of national security.
Former minister Mike Penning was an ex-soldier who served with Captain Robert Nairac, who was abducted and assassinated by the IRA.
Barrister for some of the families Barry Macdonald QC said the coroner should “invite the minister to declare himself whether there are any matters which give rise to a conflict in his background”.
Mr Leckey said: “You would think that the individual minister would scrutinise himself just to see if there is any conflict.”
An NIO spokeswoman said: “The minister is aware of the coroner’s comments. It would be inappropriate to comment further, as proceedings are ongoing.”
A Department of Justice spokesman said: “Work is ongoing to create a scheme to recruit suitable investigators to support the coroners in particular inquests.
“The department recognises the need for arrangements to be put in place as soon as possible. It must, however, observe the relevant financial and legal requirements.”
At the monthly meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast, PSNI deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie responded to criticism of delays in the disclosure process.
She pointed out the police had to deal with 52 legacy inquests.
“Each one of those represents a family or families and we fully understand the need to provide answers to those,” she said.
But Mrs Gillespie said despite the deployment of extra staff to the PSNI’s legacy support unit, it was still under serious pressure.
“It think it is fair to say the whole criminal justice system is under severe stress with regard to the legacy inquests and was not designed to deal with this level of legacy inquests,” she said.
The officer said police were committed to fulfilling their responsibilities in all the cases and acknowledged the security checking process was “painstaking and takes time”.
“But there are grave consequences if we get it wrong,” she added.