Terror victims affected by the ‘comfort letters’ sent to on-the-run (OTR) republicans could have senior police and Government representatives questioned in court as a result of landmark legal actions.
High Court writs – the first of their kind – have been issued by Kingsmills massacre survivor Alan Black, the family of John McConville who was murdered at Kingsmills and the family of an Ulster Defence Regiment soldier killed by the IRA in 1972.
UDR man Alfred Johnston died along with James Eames when a suspect vehicle they were approaching exploded at the Cherrymount roundabout in Enniskillen.
According to official documents, convicted IRA member John Downey’s fingerprint was found on the detonator of the Cherrymount bomb.
However, hopes that he would ever face a court over the double murder all but evaporated when his trial for alleged involvement in the Hyde Park bombing collapsed in February last year.
Downey, who denies involvement in the 1982 Hyde Park attack that killed 11 soldiers and seven horses, walked free when it emerged he was in possession of a Government letter assuring him he was not wanted for any terrorist offences.
Alan Black survived the Kingsmills massacre despite being shot 18 times in south Armagh by gunmen who stopped a minibus carrying textile workers home from work. Ten of his Protestant workmates were killed during the attack – for which the PIRA have never admitted responsibility – in January 1976.
Following the collapse of the Downey trial, the PSNI disclosed that two people suspected of involvement in the Kingsmills murders had received OTR letters.
Documents released through the legal discovery process have also revealed that around 34 people are suspected of being involved in planning and carrying out the attack.
Mr Black, and the family of his murdered colleague John McConville who are also taking legal action, cannot accept that only two suspects got ‘OTR letters’ when no one has been convicted of involvement at any level.
Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights imposes an obligation on the state to protect the right to life, and where life is taken an effective and proper investigation must be carried out.
Mr Black said: “The people who are supposed to protect us are covering up for the people who shot us.”
The new court writs have been served on the Secretary of State and Chief Constable.
If the claim for damages is defended and goes all the way to a court hearing, then the Kingsmills massacre will, for the first time, be looked at through the cross-examination of witnesses in front of a High Court judge.
Mr McConville’s sister Karen Armstrong said the families have been let down by the various justice agencies.
“John’s life in their eyes meant nothing, just like the rest of the men. As far as I’m concerned they were never going bring anybody to justice for Kingsmills.
“The very night it happened a wall of silence went up and that continues to be the case. John’s family have always been faithful to the state with members having served in a number of wars and others seeing service in the police. This is our reward for loyalty. This is why we have to take legal action,” Mrs Armstrong added.
Solicitor Kevin Winters is a legal representative in all three court actions.
He said: “The families have been let down by the government and that is a re-traumatising process. The OTR scheme was flawed and that is a component of the legal action we are taking. It hasn’t been done before. There is a sense of failure in having to do that. The government has the ultimate responsibility for investigating all of these atrocities, killings, murders, and in varying ways has failed the families.”
In a statement, the family of UDR Lance-Corporal Alfred Johnston said they have been “deeply shocked and continually re-traumatised” by the recent developments around the OTR scheme.
“Statutory bodies in the lead up to and following a succession of reports have demonstrated a complete disregard for the feelings and views of our family as victims of terrorism. How these matters have been handled has further intensified this trauma and our confidence in the justice system, at every level, has been affected.”
It adds: “The family simply wish to ensure that every effort will now be made to bring the perpetrators to justice and to fully understand the decision making processes involving the police, the prosecution service and the government.”