Relatives of a prisoner who died of a heart attack while being transferred to another prison today won the right to observe jail staff giving evidence at an inquest.
Coroner John Leckey agreed to an application by a legal representative after she objected to prison wardens giving evidence from behind screens over fears for their safety.
James Carlisle McDonnell, 36, from Antrim was on remand at the high security Maghaberry jail when he died after an altercation with a number of prison officers in March 1996.
“The family should be entitled to see screened witnesses,” Mr Leckey told the inquest at Laganside Courthouse.
Mr McDonnell, who was charged with grievous bodily harm, had been moved from the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, which was closing, on the day he died.
“Mr McDonnell was involved in an altercation with a number of prison officers. They exercised a number of control and restraint techniques on him. Later Mr McDonnell died from a heart attack,” said Ronan Daly, lawyer for the Coroners Service.
Risk assessments on the level of threat to prison officers from dissident republican and dissident loyalist terrorists were provided to the court by an independent body. The documents claimed if anonymity was not granted the risk could substantially increase.
Karen Quinlivan QC, counsel for the McDonnell family, argued that none of the prison officers involved in the inquest should be granted anonymity or be screened from public view and described the application as fanciful.
“The message is that if you are a member of the security forces you do not have to give evidence in public,” said Ms Quinlivan.
Two officers had previously given evidence at terrorist related trials and another had a prominent position, she added.
Members of the McDonnell family will be permitted to sit with legal representatives while the prison officers, who will be screened from public view and identified using ciphers, give their evidence.
The move brings Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales. Relatives of those killed in the 7/7 London bombings were allowed to observe intelligence officers from MI5 and MI6 give evidence at inquests.
Patrick Lyttle QC, barrister for the Prison Service, who argued against identification of prison wardens, said: “The issue of anonymity in Northern Ireland is different than in the rest of the UK.”
The Coroner also ruled that the disciplinary record of a staff member identified as Officer H should be disclosed to legal representatives for the next of kin.
“I am directing disclosure on the basis that the file will be treated as strictly confidential,” said Mr Leckey.
Earlier the jury of four men and seven women were sworn in. They are expected to start hearing evidence tomorrow.
The hearing has been scheduled to last for three weeks but, Mr Daly warned it may exceed the predicted time frame.