Northern Ireland

Paul Thompson: Secretary of state loses high court disclosure challenge over UFF murder victim’s inquest

Mr Thompson was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries

Liam Paul Thompson was shot dead in Belfast in 1994
Liam Paul Thompson was shot dead in Belfast in 1994 (Family Handout/PA)

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has lost a further High Court challenge to the planned disclosure of sensitive information at a loyalist paramilitary murder victim’s inquest.

A judge has already rejected claims the coroner acted unlawfully in directing that a limited summary of some material could be provided to the family of Liam Paul Thompson.

Further proceedings were issued after it emerged that the chief constable had proposed an alternative version, or gist, of the same information about the killing.

Objecting to disclosure, lawyers for the secretary of state argued that it would breach the government’s Neither Confirm Nor Deny Policy (NCND) and potentially damage national security.

But Mr Justice Humphreys identified no legal flaws in how the coroner dealt with the case and wider issues about the importance of any use of agents in the acquisition of intelligence.

Mr Thompson (25) was shot dead by the UFF at Springfield Park while in a taxi in April 1994.

Amid allegations the RUC was aware of a credible threat against the cab firm, members of the community suspect police were complicit in the attack by failing to provide a warning.

At the long-delayed inquest, the PSNI and Ministry of Defence requested Public Interest Immunity (PII) for several documents which would otherwise be disclosed.

The applications were based on certificates issued by NIO minister Steve Baker, who cited the continuing threat from terrorism and asserted that any disclosure would cause a real risk of serious harm to the public interest.

Last month, the coroner granted PII for nearly all of the material, but concluded that a gist contained in one of seven PSNI folders was highly relevant and should be provided.

She determined the risk to national security was not at the level asserted, but also ruled that names, dates and intelligence were to be redacted.

During an initial legal action heard partly in private, the PSNI and government claimed the coroner got it wrong and disputed the rationality of her reasons.

Despite that case being dismissed, the secretary of state pursued a fresh challenge to the proposed second gist.

The court heard that he wrote to Chief Constable Jon Boutcher on March 26 about sensitive disclosure issues in legacy inquests, expressing “deep concern” at what he described as a “developing trend” towards departures from the NCND policy.

A request was made for Mr Boutcher not to propose or consent to any disclosure of information subject to claim for PII without giving an opportunity to make representations.

In his reply to Mr Heaton-Harris, the chief constable denied taking any action to depart from the NCND policy and confirmed he had no intention of allowing the disclosure of information which would cause serious harm or real damage to national security or the public interest.

Rejecting all grounds of challenge, Mr Justice Humphreys held that the coroner directed herself properly on all relevant issues.

He concluded: “The position of the secretary of state seeks to elevate the NCND policy to a matter of legal principle which is… an erroneous approach.

“If that were the case then there would be no role for the court to play, save for saluting the NCND flag.

“In the instant case, the gist discloses a very limited amount of information in the context of the coronial investigation.”

Amid the potential for an appeal, the judge imposed a temporary stay on any disclosure of the sensitive information.