Northern Ireland

Coroner in murder of four Catholics can’t continue inquest as MI5 and NIO objections emerge

Collusion suspected in McKearney and Fox sectarian killings

Members of the Fox and McKearney families at Belfast Laganside Court. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Members of the Fox and McKearney families at Belfast Laganside Court PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

A coroner has said he cannot continue with an inquest into the sectarian murder of four Catholics as it emerged that the Northern Ireland Office and MI5 have objected to intelligence linked to the case being made public.

Charlie Fox (63) and his wife Tess (53) were gunned down in their home, near Moy in Co Tyrone, in September 1992.

Eight months earlier their son-in-law Kevin McKearney (32), who was married to their daughter Bernie, and his uncle Jack McKearney (70), died after a gun attack at a family-run butcher’s shop in Moy.

Kevin died instantly, while Jack died later in hospital.

Kevin and Jack McKearney

Collusion is strongly suspected in both cases and during previous inquest hearings loyalist suspects have been identified, including notorious UVF commander and suspected state agent Robin ‘The Jackal’ Jackson.

Both inquests, which opened last year and were originally linked, were subject Public Interest Immunity applications.

PII applications are made when state agencies do not want information placed in the public domain.

At a review hearting in Belfast on Friday, coroner Richard Greene revealed he had intended to provide a gist, or limited summary, of sensitive information to those attending.

However, he was forced to abandon the plan after objections were received from MI5, also known as the Security Service and the Northern Ireland Office, which is headed by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.

The Conservative MP has recently launched legal action in several inquests involving allegations of collusion to stop gists being provided.

Under the British government’s controversial Legacy Act all inquests that are not at their findings stage by May 1 will be halted.

Paddy Fox whose parents Charlie and Tess Fox were murderedin 1992 holds up a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate  at Belfast Laganside Court. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Paddy Fox whose parents Charlie and Tess Fox were murdered in 1992 holds up a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate at Belfast Laganside Court PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

In a provisional ruling, Mr Greene said he had planned to “provide disclosure by way of a short narrative, or gist, providing some information in my open ruling”.

He confirmed the ruling had been provided to the “state parties” and had received additional material from the Secretary of State and Security Service in “both open and closed” forms.

He added that he had also received an “amended gist” from the PSNI, which he intended to adopt.

He added, however, that “the proposed gist is not accepted by the Security Service or the Northern Ireland Office, who object to its release in open”.

Mr Greene said he was not going to hand down the gist to “allow for a challenge to be taken to my approach”.

The coroner told the court that it was his provisional view that it would not be possible “for the inquest to fully investigate in open the informant’s issue”.

He added that he does not believe the inquest can continue.

“I have therefore reached a provisional view that my inquiry into these deaths is seriously compromised because relevant information central to the scope of the inquest cannot be disclosed and as a result my provisional view is that I cannot continue with these inquests,” he said.

“Additionally, my provisional view is that it would not now be possible in any event to hold an inquest given the time that has elapsed and the statutory timetable which expires on the first of May.”

He added that a public inquiry “is the appropriate way to consider the full circumstances of these deaths”.

Charlie and Tess Fox

Paddy Fox, whose parents were murdered, welcomed the suggestion of a public inquiry.

“Who is the Secretary of State protecting? he asked

“Why is he going to court?

Mr Fox expressed disappointment that the coroner didn’t deliver the planned gist.

“He was anticipating an appeal but he has no idea (one was coming).

“You only know when one was put out there.”

“He gave them an out when there shouldn’t have been an out.

“It’s one of those things, publish and be damned.”

Members of the Fox and McKearney families at Belfast Laganside Court. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Tommy McKearney speaks outside Belfast Laganside Court PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Speaking outside court his solicitor Gavin Booth, of Phoenix Law, accused Mr Heaton-Harris of “intercepting” the coroner’s ruling.

“This is a disgraceful attempt by the secretary of state to stop justice being done and being seen to be done,” he said.

“The coroner endorsed the fact that these inquests need to be a public inquiry. He said that he cannot continue with the inquest due to what has been disclosed by the state parties in this inquest.

“But rather than accepting that and endorsing the families’ calls for a public inquiry, the secretary of state has now told the families that he will take them to court like every other family. This is a disgraceful attempt to divert justice for families. It’s absolutely disgusting.”

He added he will lodge urgent court proceedings in the High Court “to get the ruling in full for the families so that they can finally get the information that proves that there was collusion in these murders”.

A spokesman for the British government said: “The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will give careful consideration to the coroner’s ruling when it is delivered and to related correspondence when it is received.”