Northern Ireland

Not possible to hear Loughgall inquest before legislation cut-off, judge says

The scene following an IRA attack on Loughgall RUC station, County Armagh, in May 1987 (Archive/PA)
The scene following an IRA attack on Loughgall RUC station, County Armagh, in May 1987 (Archive/PA)

There is not enough time to hear a fresh inquest into the deaths of nine people in Loughgall in 1987 before the cut-off date imposed by the UK Government’s new legacy legislation a senior judge has said.

However Mr Justice McAlinden, who is the coroner in the case, ruled that preparation work should continue, noting legal challenges to the legislation and a potential Westminster election next year.

The nine men were shot by the SAS in the Co Armagh village in 1987 as an IRA unit carried out an attack on a police station.

Eight had been among the IRA unit, while civilian Anthony Hughes, who was travelling through the village in a car, was also shot dead.

National Archives papers
The eight-man IRA unit killed in a shoot out with SAS soldiers following the bombing of the Loughgall RUC station, County Armagh, in May 1987, (clockwise from top left) Gerard O’Callaghan, 29, Antony Gormley, 25, James Lynagh, 32, Eugene Kelly, 25, Declan Arthurs, 21, Patrick McKerney, 32, Seamus Donnelly, 21 and Patrick Kelly, 25 (Archives/PA)

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which received royal assent earlier this year despite widespread opposition, will halt future civil cases and inquests which have not concluded by May 1 2024.

Following that date cases are to be passed to the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (Icrir), led by former Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

At an inquest preliminary hearing on Friday, Justice McAlinden said it will take six months to hear the Loughgall inquest.

He said that would mean it would have to start in November, to finish by the May deadline, which he said was not possible.

Lawyers representing the Ministry of Defence and the PSNI said work to prepare for Loughgall will have an impact on the preparation for other cases, describing a “finite resource”.

“There are other cases listed, other cases indeed similar in nature to this that are listed and stand a prospect of being completed by May 1,” said Peter Coll KC, acting for the MoD.

Mr Justice McAlinden said the court has to be aware of the risk of “imposing unachievable burdens upon state agencies”, and “potentially interfering with the successful completion of other cases.

He described a “delicate balancing exercise” between the need to proceed with the investigation until it is prevented from doing so, while ensuring that any direction does not “sabotage the prospects of other case”.

Concluding, he said work needs to continue.

He said the state bodies need to reflect on what can be done, and provide a business plan of what can be done, to ensure there is “some level of resourcing”, so that “meaningful progress” can be made.

“The state agencies should not simply sit on their hands and wait for that date (May 1 2024) to expire,” he said.

“The state agencies should, in the view of this court, take steps to ensure that some meaningful progress is made.”

Mr Justice McAlinden also said there is “no guarantee that date will remain cast in stone”, in light of legal challenges and an election next year.

“In those circumstances, to permit the downing of tools at this stage would be an abdication of this court’s responsibility to ensure that these deaths are investigated and to ensure there is meaningful progress in the investigation of this matter,” he said.

He directed that the MoD and PSNI “come back within six weeks with proposals and business plans to ensure that in light of their other commitments, some meaningful progress can be made in relation to the Public Interest Immunity (PII) issues”.

He added: “One cannot at this stage foresee the possible outworkings of such progress, but if such progress can benefit the families in terms of their quest for the truth in respect to these killings, can possibly inform the potential involvement of Sir Declan Morgan’s body, can possibly assist in relation to the civil claim which is ongoing, I think those are all matters which the court can take into account rather than limiting utility to the issue of whether the inquest can be completed.”

Another review hearing is set to take place on December 14, which is also set to look at an ongoing civil case.