The Coroner in the inquest into the Kingsmills Massacre yesterday opened his hearing with a lengthy discourse addressing a litany of concerns raised by the families of this killed.
Ten Protestant workmen were gunned down as they travelled home in a minibus near Kingsmills in south Armagh in 1976. Although never claimed, the PSNI have said the IRA was responsible.
Last week sole survivor Alan Black publicly voiced frustrations in the News Letter with the legacy inquest into the matter, saying: “As families we felt that we were getting empathy at the very start of the inquest, but no longer.”
He was speaking after DCI Ian Harrison - supported by the coroner - refused to cooperate with several lines of inquiry by counsel for relatives of the deceased, including a failed attempt to prosecute suspect S54 last year.
Judge Coroner Brian Sherrard opened yesterday’s hearing saying he had received a letter of complaint on the same issues by victims campaigner Willie Frazer, who supports a number of the families.
DCI Harrison led attempts last year to prosecute a suspect S54, whose palm print was found on a getaway minibus. Last week at the inquest he declined to tell the families whether a statement linking S54 to Kingsmills from a self-confessed IRA member was an “important” piece of intelligence. This was despite it being the only piece of intelligence on S54 in the PSNI report about the suspect.
Mr Harrison had also declined to tell the families whether The Irish News had been accurate in June 2016 when it claimed to have revealed the identity of the suspect who left his palm print on the getaway van.
But addressing the families on Tuesday, Mr Sherrard emphasised that “the inquest is not a criminal or civil litigation” and noted that “the inquest must be obedient the law” and prevent the identification of suspects in order to protect their lives.
He said he was going on record as coroner to confirm that the intelligence document was in his view “important” and to confirm that the Irish News had not correctly identified the man whose print was left on the vehicle.
The prosecution of S54 had failed because it had not been possible to definitively place the getaway van at the massacre scene. But DCI Harrison admitted to families last week that after the palm print - which had been detected in 1976 - was sensationally matched to S54 by chance in the opening weeks of the inquest in 2016, he had never visited the crime scene and had not investigated two reported sightings of the van.
The coroner reminded the families that the inquest had provided them with access to 49 folders of information - seven of them highly sensitive, as well as 35 witnesses and 45 witness statements. It was worth recalling that the palm print match was prompted by the inquest, he said.
“If it was not for the inquest the issue of the palm print is unlikely to have emerged at all,” he added.
Meanwhile, counsel for the coroner, Sean Doran QC, said they are continuing to pursue the Republic of Ireland authorities for intelligence about the gunmen - and had been promised a substantial response by mid-September.
The families have been pursuing the Garda for information for some three years but say to date they have been given little more than newspaper clippings, despite the fact that the gang was operating from the south. John Kane QC for the families said they were also keen to cross examine a well informed Garda witness.
Mr Kane also pressed to have a witness attend the hearings to answer questions about the two suspects who had been given On-The-Run (OTR) Letters, S77 and S97. Mr Sherrard repeatedly suggested that they were “relatively peripheral” because they only featured briefly in intelligence, but Fiona Doherty QC for the families said S97 was named as wanted for arrest in the RUC gazette in 1976, a document which she said had never formally been withdrawn.
The coroner said consideration would be given as to who might provide a witness.
Mr Doran noted that families were asking to name deceased suspects S77 and S97, but Mr Sherrard agreed that a full audit would have to be done to ensure this would not compromises others.
Mr Doran also said that communication channels remained open with journalist Toby Harden who wrote about the massacre in his book, Bandit Country.
The journalist had quoted an intelligence document that the inquest could not locate. Mr Sherrard asked Mr Doran to write to Mr Harnden and request cooperation, politely advising that he now has the power to compel witnesses.
Ms Doherty said Mr Harnden had a significant archive which might contain other information of interest.