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Coroner urges public inquiry into GAA official’s murder as inquest ‘compromised’

A coroner has called on the Government to order a public inquiry into the murder of a senior GAA official after ruling an inquest cannot proceed due to the withholding of sensitive files.

Mr Justice Kinney said his ability to examine the death of Sean Brown had been “compromised” by the extent of confidential state material being excluded from the proceedings on national security grounds.

Announcing the Public Interest Immunity (PII) ruling in Belfast, the coroner said he will be writing to Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, calling on the Government to establish a public inquiry into the loyalist murder.

Mr Brown, 61, was abducted and killed by loyalist paramilitaries as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in Co Londonderry in May 1997.

Mr Justice Kinney’s ruling comes after the Security Service, Ministry of Defence and Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) applied for multiple redactions on sensitive files related to the murder.

Preliminary inquest proceedings have already heard that in excess of 25 people have been linked by intelligence to the murder, including several state agents.

It has also been alleged in court that surveillance of a suspect in the murder was temporarily stopped on the evening of the killing, only to resume again the following morning.

No-one has been convicted of Mr Brown’s murder.

During his PII ruling, Mr Justice Kinney heavily criticised the way the state parties had handled the disclosure process, branding repeated delays “deplorable and, frankly, inexcusable”.

He said the extent of material he had agreed to exempt from being used as evidence at the inquest meant he could not comply with his statutory duty to investigate the circumstances of Mr Brown’s death.

The coroner said an inquest is unable to hear evidence in closed proceedings, and noted that a public inquiry could examine such sensitive materials.

“I am satisfied that my duty to carry out a full, fair and fearless investigation into Mr Brown’s death is seriously compromised as issues of central importance to the death cannot be dealt with by the inquest process,” he said.

Sean Brown inquest
The family of Sean Brown outside court (Liam McBurney/PA)

The coroner said he is unable to make a “proper analysis” of the material that has been redacted as a result of the Public Interest Immunity process.

“In those circumstances, and with considerable regret, I have concluded that I cannot continue with this inquest,” he said.

“To do so would inevitably result in an inquest that would be incomplete, inadequate, and misleading.”

Mr Justice Kinney acknowledged that his decision would cause “further pain and anguish” for Mr Brown’s family.

The coroner said he expected a reply from the Government on his request for a public inquiry within four weeks.

He said Mr Brown was an “entirely innocent man” who was subject to a “planned execution” by Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gunmen.

“His murder was senseless,” he added.

The coroner said he could not provide a satisfactory answer to the family’s question as to why Mr Brown was murdered.

He said the victim was at the “heart of his family and his community”.

“He was a man of whom his family are justifiably proud. He was the kind of person our society needs and his loss is truly felt in that wider sense.”

The coroner praised the family’s long fight for justice.

“The inquest process as it stands cannot provide what you desire or deserve,” he said.

The public gallery in Belfast High Court was packed with members of the Brown family and supporters, including senior GAA officials, among them association president Jarlath Burns.

Mark Robinson KC, representing Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Heaton-Harris, said he will carefully consider the ruling.

He said the Cabinet minister acknowledged the “suffering” the murder has caused.

Barrister for the Brown family Des Fahy KC said that, while they did not want the inquest to stop, they accept the ruling.

Stormont Assembly
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will carefully consider the ruling, his barrister said (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

Mr Fahy said the family’s reaction was a mixture of “sadness and anger”.

“This is not a legal process where the Brown family is frustrated because they have not been able to find out the truth about the murder of Sean Brown,” he said.

“That’s because the truth about what happened is right here in these folders of sensitive material about the murder, but it can’t come out and it can’t be revealed by you (the coroner) because of the many hundreds of redactions that have been made by the Chief Constable of the PSNI and by the security services.”

Mr Fahy said one file contained 56 pages and each one of those pages had been completely blanked out, meaning “not a word of evidence” is being made public.

He said in another file, 15 out of 15 pages were similarly entirely blanked out.

The legal counsel said the Brown family viewed that approach to redaction as an “affront to the principles of open justice and fairness”.

“The truth of what happened to Sean Brown is not some intangible thing, far off in the distance,” he added.

“It’s here and available if only the state parties would allow it to be revealed.”

He said the stance prompted the family to question what the state has got to hide.

Outside court one of Mr Brown’s daughters, Siobhan, welcomed the coroner’s call for a public inquiry.

Sean Brown inquest
Siobhan Brown speaks to the media after the coroner’s ruling (Liam McBurney/PA).

She said revelations that state agents had been linked to the murder were “devastating”.

“It was always the family’s opinion that there were state agents involved in it,” she said.

“But the extent to which they were involved was shocking when we heard last week that up to 25 individuals were involved and potentially that involved many state agents.

“And, again, the information in relation to surveillance on an individual that was carried out, stopped and then restarted the day after my father was murdered – (that) in itself speaks volumes.”

The GAA backed the call for a public inquiry.

“The GAA is disappointed that the failure of British security forces to release material relating to the murder of former Bellaghy chairperson Sean Brown means an inquest cannot proceed but welcomes the call from coroner Mr Justice Kinney for a full public inquiry,” said a statement from the association.

“The association acknowledges the work and diligence of the coroner and will continue to assist and support the Brown family in their quest for full disclosure, truth and justice after a 27-year wait.”

2024 Cross Border Police Conference on Organised & Serious Crime
PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (Niall Carson/PA)

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said he is determined to work with families impacted by disclosure limitations at legacy inquests.

He added: “The Brown family, and indeed others, have been let down by the lack of a suitable mechanism to address sensitive information at inquests.

“As we know, inquests can work perfectly well for some families, but for those cases where large swathes of information attract public interest immunity, those families also have a right to answers.

“I am looking to address those issues and the Police Service of Northern Ireland will co-operate with any public inquiry.”