The Kingsmills massacre inquest yesterday stalled temporarily over claims that a newspaper article linked the wrong man to a palm print on a getaway van.
Ten Protestant workmen were gunned down at Kingsmills as they travelled home from work in south Armagh in 1976. The PSNI has said the IRA was responsible.
At the legacy inquest in Laganside Belfast yesterday, DCI Ian Harrison was quizzed about the failed attempt to prosecute suspect S54 in 2016/17.
He was arrested after a palm print found on a getaway van in 1976 was startlingly matched to him shortly after the inquest opened in 2016.
Fiona Doherty QC, for the families, yesterday passed out copies of an Irish News article dated 6 June 2016 in which a high profile republican claimed the palm print was his.
She then asked DCI Harrison to confirm that the Irish News had named the wrong man.
She said: “This is a matter of significant public interest because they [the families] were thrown into absolute disarray by this article and subsequent inferences and they were right, in my view, that this article was on completely the wrong track.”
Mr Harrison responded that it was police policy not to confirm or deny the identity of suspects. But Ms Doherty noted that the PSNI itself had published the age of the man they arrested and it was “quite clear the person in this article is not the same person”.
Coroner Judge Brian Sherrard asked Mr Harrison to leave court while they discussed the matter, then deciding that “this vexed question reference the Irish News” was to be put on hold for further consideration.
Earlier, Mr Harrison said the IRA gunmen who murdered Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan in south Armagh in 1989 took documents from their car to S54’s home for inspection. He linked S54 to 20 murders including Kingsmills, Tullyvallen Orange Hall and five soldiers at Forkhill.
The PSNI’s C3 department painted him as “an old school very dangerous terrorist” who declined to say a single word in two days of interviews in 2016.
He was convicted of possession of explosives and membership of an unlawful organisation in Dublin shortly after Kingsmills and later served time for other “weapons and munitions” offences.
The attempt to prosecute him in 2017 failed, Mr Harrison said, because the getaway van his palm print was found on could not be proven to have been at the massacre scene - and because there could be an innocent explanation for his palm print being found on it.
However, under cross examination by Ms Doherty, Mr Harrison confirmed that in his 2016 investigation he had not looked into two separate reported sightings of the van close to the massacre scene - and that he never visited the location himself. He also revealed he had verbally advised the Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute S54.
“I would like to express my remorse that my investigations have not given the families the justice that they so richly deserve,” he said.
He agreed to update the court after reviewing the two reported sightings of the van.