The PSNI and Justice Minister yesterday refused to offer any more explanation in the face of mounting questions about how a fresh investigative lead was found in the Kingsmills massacre which it is feared could derail a legacy inquest into the atrocity.
The IRA gunned down 10 Protestant men in 1976 as they returned home from work near Kingsmills in south Armagh.
The gunmen used a hijacked minibus, on which a palm print was found, but was never traced to a suspect.
However, on Tuesday the PSNI said the print had been re-examined by forensic scientists last week and a potential match found on the police database.
Yesterday questions mounted from many quarters about why police had rechecked the palm print after so many previous reviews – and why the timing of the announcement coincided with week two of a four-to-six-week inquest.
Other questions arising included whether this will lead to the inquest being suspended, and whether similar leads have been missed in other Troubles investigations.
None of the questions could be deemed prejudicial to the investigation into any suspect.
However, Minister for Justice Claire Sugden and the PSNI yesterday declined to address any of the concerns.
The PSNI said it was not offering any further comment, while a spokesman for the new minister said she “cannot comment on an ongoing police investigation”.
No one has ever been convicted of involvement in the Kingsmills massacre.
However, in December 2014 it was revealed that two IRA men suspected of carrying out the atrocity were given on the run ‘comfort’ letters assuring them that they were not being actively pursued by the UK authorities.
The News Letter asked the Northern Ireland Office if either of the two suspects with on the run letters would face trial if the palm print was found to belong to either of them.
A spokeswoman responded that “criminal investigations and, if appropriate, prosecutions are a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities who act independently of government”.
Sole survivor of the attack Alan Black said: “I will take the PSNI at their word – this could be very important. If they have found a match to this palm print now, I welcome it. I just hope this does not turn out to be an exercise in putting something out there and then sitting on their hands.”
UUP MLA Danny Kennedy said: “I have already called for clarity from the Chief Constable and the senior command of the PSNI and I have been in contact with the office of ACC Hamilton.”
He expects “an early arrest” if there is a genuine match and his party colleague Ross Hussey will be raising the matter at the Policing Board, he said.