Northern Ireland’s senior coroner has suspended inquests into a dozen controversial killings because of potential national security concerns, it emerged on Thursday.
The senior lawyer advising the Stormont Executive, attorney general John Larkin QC, has referred the cases to the coroner’s service for new inquests in an effort to shed further light on the deaths which sparked years of disagreement over what happened.
Some go as far back as 40 years.
But the coroner John Leckey said he feared Mr Larkin may have overstretched his powers and the matter could go before the High Court in Belfast.
Details of the disagreement emerged as a preliminary hearing into one of the killings due to go ahead on Thursday was suddenly adjourned.
Fiona Doherty, a barrister for the family of Francis Rowntree, who was hit by a rubber bullet fired in disputed circumstances by British troops during rioting in the lower Falls area of Belfast in April 1972, said: “This is a bolt out of the blue.”
Mr Leckey is to write to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and the attorney general after he received an expert legal opinion on the matter seeking clarification.
He told today’s hearing in Belfast that Northern Ireland’s coroners had arrived at a view that the attorney general may have acted outside his powers (ultra vires).
“Clearly the attorney general takes a view as to his jurisdiction and powers which is diametrically opposed,” he said.
Mr Larkin’s office was established in 2010 but his powers are restricted, with some areas like national security remaining a matter for the Northern Ireland Secretary, and it is disputed by the coroner whether the attorney general had the power to order inquests into material touching on national security issues.
Mr Leckey said part of the legislation surrounding his role had been amended without consultation with coroners, who had not been advised of an amendment having been made.
“National security was clearly to be an issue for some (inquests),” he said.
Last week a solicitor for the coroner wrote to the attorney general outlining the legal opinion and received a reply yesterday, but the coroner said Mr Larkin took a diametrically opposed view to his own.
He has now written to the Secretary of State and attorney general advising them of his decision not to proceed with any of the cases referred from the attorney general.
“Coroners will not be taking any action on the section 14 orders. Ultimately this is a matter which may have to go before the High Court for a resolution,” he said.
Among inquests suspended is the hearing into the loyalist murder of Gerard Slane in 1988. A preliminary hearing was also due to be heard today.
Mr Slane, 27, a father of three, was shot dead by the loyalist Ulster Defence Association at his home at Waterville Street, west Belfast, on September 23.
His murder led to allegations of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces.
Brian Nelson, a UDA man working for British intelligence, was implicated in the shooting.
Ms Doherty, who also represents the Slane family, said she was surprised by today’s announcement.
She told the coroner: “This is a bolt out of the blue for us and for these families who have had this direction in respect of coroners’ inquests for quite some time. It seems to us to be discourtesy of the highest order that these families expecting an inquest to be held into the death of their loved ones have not been informed that this (arose).
“I don’t know why you have any reason to believe that the attorney general acted inappropriately in these cases or that the attorney general did not have knowledge that the amendment had been made. I do not know why it seems to be considered appropriate for the coroners to interfere in a direction made by the attorney general personally in the full knowledge of his powers and jurisdiction in general.”