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Lawyer at McConville inquest accuses police of ‘sitting on their hands’

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Police inaction in establishing whether officers involved in a fatal shooting ever had roles in other lethal force incidents has been branded completely unsatisfactory.

A lawyer representing the family of 21-year-old Neil McConville, who was shot dead after a police chase near Lisburn in April 2003, have accused the PSNI of “sitting on their hands” in the three months since it received a legal request to check the officers’ service records.

Karen Quinlivan QC reacted angrily after a lawyer for the police told a preliminary inquest hearing at Belfast coroner’s court it could be another three months before the exercise was completed.

“That’s completely unsatisfactory and the police service know it,” she said.

The fatal incident unfolded after police started pursuing a car driven by Mr McConville, from Bleary near Craigavon, on the correct suspicion it was transporting a firearm.

At the culmination of the chase at Ballinderry Upper near Lisburn, an officer shot him three times amid fears he would drive over another officer he had already knocked down and injured in his efforts to get away.

Mr McConville was the first person killed by the police since the PSNI replaced the RUC in 2001 as part of peace process reforms.

While a subsequent investigation by then police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan found that the officer who fired the fatal shots had been justified, other elements of the operation, in particular its management, were heavily criticised.

A previous preliminary inquest hearing was told that two senior officers involved in directing the PSNI operation also had roles in controversial security force killings during the Troubles - incidents the family’s legal team argue are relevant.

The detective superintendent and inspector both had roles in the incident that resulted in IRA man Pearse Jordan, 22, being shot dead by police in west Belfast in 1992, while the inspector had also been in the RUC undercover unit that shot dead Catholic teenager Michael Tighe at a suspected IRA arms dump in Co Armagh in one of the alleged so-called shoot-to-kill incidents in 1982.

Following those revelations, in September the lawyers had asked the police to ascertain whether any other officers working on the operation that resulted in Mr McConville’s death had been involved in previous or subsequent fatal incidents.

A barrister for the PSNI today told coroner Suzanne Anderson that no response had yet been made to the request.

Stephen Ritchie noted that a judicial review was ongoing into the outcome of Pearse Jordan’s inquest - a hearing that is examining the disclosure of information regarding officers’ involvement in previous operations, such as the alleged shoot-to-kill incidents in the 1980s.

He said as that case had “overlaps” with Mr McConville’s inquest, the PSNI was awaiting the judgement in the judicial review before taking further steps.

Mr Ritchie said the process of establishing the past records of the officers was therefore likely to take “two or three months”.

“It does seem to me that it could take until February/March time,” he added.

A solicitor representing the PSNI, Ken Boyd, then explained that each officer involved in the McConville case, some of whom have now retired, would have to be interviewed individually about their past involvement in other lethal force operations, as that information would not be readily found on file.

“At this stage I can’t say how long it would take,” he said.

“A number of officers have retired and some have retired out of the jurisdiction.”

Ms Quinlivan insisted there was no “point of principle” that prevented the work being done while the separate judicial review was ongoing.

“They have had it (request from solicitors) from 23rd September and had taken no issue with it,” she said.

“But they just sat and waited and now they’re saying ‘we’ll guess (a timetable), just pluck a figure out of the air’?”

She added: “There is no justification that since 23rd September they have sat on their hands and taken no steps.”

Ms Anderson told the PSNI’s legal representatives that she wanted a written indication by the end of the week on what the timetable for interviewing the officers would be. She said the issue would be discussed further at the next preliminary hearing in the new year.

After investigating the shooting, Mrs O’Loan, now Baroness O’Loan, found that the shooting of Mr McConville had been justified.

She said after an initial collision with police vehicles, officers had ordered him to stop the engine and get out. However he reversed at speed and struck and injured one of the officers.

The prone officer was then in the vehicle’s path and when Mr McConville changed out of reverse gear and again tried to drive off, a police colleague - fearing the officer’s life was in danger - fired three times.

Mr McConville was fatally injured and later declared dead in Lagan Valley Hospital.

A passenger in the car sustained non-life threatening injuries in the incident.

The man was later jailed for possession of a sawn-off shot gun recovered from the vehicle.

Mrs O’Loan did find that the operation had not been managed in such as way as to minimise the possibility of recourse to lethal force.

 

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