Northern Ireland

British government accused of ‘supressing truth’ as NIO denies legacy political intervention

Concerns continue as SoS seeks to block information being passed to family of murdered Catholic man Fergal McCusker

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris welcomed the ICRIR becoming operational
Chris Heaton-Harris (James Manning/PA)

The British government has been accused of attempting to “suppress the truth” as the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) denied Chris Heaton-Harris made “an unprecedented political intervention” after writing to chief constable Jon Boutcher questioning his actions over legacy.

Concerns were raised this week during an inquest hearing liked to the LVF murder of Fergal McCusker (28) in Maghera, Co Derry, as he made his way home from a night out on January 18, 1998.

While four men were arrested and later released no-one has ever been charged with the murder, which the victim’s family believe involved collusion.

At an inquest hearing into his death this week, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris was accused of “an unprecedented political intervention” by former Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory KC, who acts for the McCusker family.

It also emerged the NIO official has written to chief constable Jon Boutcher questioning his actions in relation to an unconnected legacy case.

The intervention by Mr Heaton-Harris comes after he and Mr Boutcher launched a failed legal challenge last month to stop a coroner providing a gist, or summary, of intelligence about the killing of Paul ‘Topper’ Thompson in West Belfast in April 1994.

Lawyers for the Secretary of State and chief constable had claimed any summary of sensitive information breached the British government’s Neither Confirm Nor Deny (NCND) policy.

The challenge was later thrown out by a High Court judge and in a statement, Mr Boutcher said he “accepts the judgment” and welcomed “the clarity that it provides”.

A vigil will be held to remember LVF murder Fergal McCusker on Friday
LVF murder victim Fergal McCusker

In correspondence to Mr Boutcher, the Secretary of State referred to the PSNI chief’s comments in relation to the Thompson judgment.

“‘Public comment on this matter without reference to me as Secretary of State is unwelcome’,” he said.

It is understood coroner Paddy McGurgan is considering producing a gist in the McCusker case, but Mr Heaton-Harris is objecting.

In a statement on Wednesday, the NIO said “accusations that this was an intervention of a political nature are wholly incorrect”.

“The Secretary of State was acting after assessment that the UK government’s Neither Confirm Nor Deny policy was not being properly adhered to,” the statement added.

“The Secretary of State wrote to the Chief Constable to raise concerns and remind him of the principal role of the UK Government in this policy.”

The statement added that while there is disagreement “the UK Government maintains a constructive relationship with the PSNI, while recognising its operational independence from government”.

SDLP Policing Board member Mark H Durkan said he intends to raise the matter when the Policing Board meets on Thursday.

“This is first a blatant attempt to interfere in the administration of justice and it is much more for a number of reasons,” he said.

“These are strong arm tactics from a London government determined to suppress the truth of the past. They stop at nothing.”

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said: “It is deeply concerning and disgraceful to learn that the British Secretary of State recently intervened during the inquest of Fergal McCusker.”

The Department of Justice did not respond when contacted.

The PSNI made no comment.