Fears that murdered GAA official Sean Brown's inquest could be halted by Legacy Bill

Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan
Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan

Several senior GAA and nationalist political figures are expected to attend an inquest hearing linked to murdered Co Derry official Sean Brown after two hearings were canceled due to the PSNI and Ministry of Defence (MoD) failing to produce sensitive disclosure.

Two days of evidence were expected to be heard in Belfast on Monday and Tuesday.

It is understood they were called off after the PSNI and MoD failed to produce sensitive disclosure in the case.

The delay, which has angered members of the Brown family and their supporters came as the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) revealed amendments to the controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

The proposed legislation, which has been dubbed the ‘Bill of Shame' by some opponents, originally suggested only inquests that have reached substantive hearing stage a year after it has passed would be allowed.

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Civil cases have been stopped and immunity from prosecution will also be offered in some circumstances.

It has now emerged that only inquests that are at findings stage by May next year will proceed.

Under the planned legislation, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), would take over legacy cases.

It is understood a large number of campaigning relatives have said they will not co-operate with the new body.

Burnt out car at the scene where Sean Brown's body was found
Burnt out car at the scene where Sean Brown's body was found Burnt out car at the scene where Sean Brown's body was found

Mr Brown was attacked and beaten by an LVF gang as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAC on May 12 1997.

The Bellaghy club chairman was then put in the boot of his own car and taken to a country lane outside Randalstown in Co Antrim where he was shot six times.

Relatives suspect collusion and no-one has been charged in connection with the murder.

Brigid Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown
Brigid Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown Brigid Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown

On the opening day of the inquest in March, Mr Brown's widow Bridie (86) described her husband as a “very fair-minded man who treated everybody the same”.

In the 26 years since his death, almost 40 inquest linked hearings have been held.

Damian Brown
Damian Brown Damian Brown

The vast majority of those hearings were attended by Mr Brown's son Damian, who died in 2021 after a short illness.

In a statement, the Brown family has voiced concern.

“We are devastated to be notified of this further delay," they said. 

"Our mother was as stoic and dignified as we have ever known her to be, when she gave evidence and testimony as to the memory and legacy of her husband Sean, in March of this year.

"To attend the High Court and give evidence, took weeks of preparation and fortitude, as well as weeks of comfort and recovery afterwards. It was emotionally exhausting to have to endure the pain of sitting in court and listen to the opening statement which outlined how our father died."

The Brown family claimed deadlines for disclosure have been ignored.

"The court set strong deadlines for compliance with disclosure obligations, yet these have been ignored by the police and the MoD," they said.

"Their failure to comply with the court’s directions has had the effect of us losing two precious days of court hearings."

The campaigning family believe both the PSNI and MoD have ignored the court.

 "Our fear is that they knew that their government was preparing yet again, to change the goalposts in their favour, and they effectively ignored the court, abandoned their obligations to us, knowing that all they have to do, is to cling on, until May 2024, less than a year away, and their government will close this inquest and with it preserve the state’s secrets as to their role in Sean’s murder," they said.

Senior GAA figures including Ulster Council President Ciaran McLaughlin, its CEO Brian McEvoy and Derry County Board chairman John Keenan are all expected to attend Tuesday's preliminary hearing.

Political leaders due to attend include Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill, Mid Ulster SDLP assembly member Patsy McGlone and former SDLP Policing Board member and MLA Alex Attwood.

Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan
Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan

Former Police Ombudsman Dame Nuala O'Loan said Mr Brown's family has "endured not only the agony of his terrible death but also the anguish of long years waiting to find out all the facts surrounding his murder".

"Unless their inquest is heard before May 2024, and if the Legacy Bill is passed, their case could only be  dealt with by the ICRIR which does not even have the information retrieving powers of an inquest.

"This is a travesty and the ongoing pain of Mrs Brown and her family will be terribly exacerbated.

"How can a civilised society fail so utterly in its obligations to the families of those murdered during the Troubles?"

Solicitor Niall Murphy of KRW Law was critical of the British government's inquest amendment.

"This amendment will have a transformative, and I regret to observe, a terminal effect on all legacy inquests," he said.

"This bill represents the greatest existential threat to justice and truth recovery in our society. 

"It is designed to cauterise the state’s liability and obviate the requirement of open justice before the court and is a flagrant disregard of the state’s international legal obligation, specifically with regards to article 2 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights).

Paul O'Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre said: “This process has dragged on for years and any further delays by the PSNI and MoD in supplying documents could result in this inquest being stopped in May 2024.  Words cannot describe how cruel this would be and the damage that this would cause. 

"This is a defining moment and the NIO and ICRIR should take note."

Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Saunders said: “It is not for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to express a view on the Government’s proposed Legacy Bill. 

"Whilst the proposed legislation remains subject of parliamentary scrutiny, the police service, as a body independent of the executive or legislature, will continue to perform our duty and deal with legacy cases in accordance with our current statutory obligations as effectively as possible."

He added that the PSNI is "supporting the Coroner’s Service during this Inquest and we will continue to do so". 

"As this is the subject of ongoing Inquest proceedings, it would be inappropriate for the Police Service to comment further at this time,” he said.

A spokesman for the MoD said: “The MOD is fully committed to assisting the inquest process.

"There are ongoing legal proceedings relating to this incident and as such it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Office said the amendments to the legacy bill "provide a greater focus on the interests of victims and families".

A spokesperson added: "We have to be realistic about what we can best deliver for families over a quarter of a century after the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. In order to provide greater information, accountability and acknowledgement to victims, survivors, and families, we must do things differently.”