Northern Ireland

Family of Sean Brown say treatment at hands of state agencies 'cruel, inhumane and degrading'

Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown at a previous hearing
Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown at a previous hearing Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown at a previous hearing

The family of murdered GAA official Sean Brown has branded their treatment at the hands of state agencies as “cruel, inhumane and degrading” after the PSNI claimed an inquest is not an “appropriate vehicle” for continuing the investigation into his death.

Mr Brown (61) was attacked and beaten by an LVF gang as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAC, Co Derry, in May 1997.

After he was placed in the boot of his own car, he was taken to a country lane outside Randalstown, Co Antrim, where he was shot six times.

Collusion is strongly suspected and no-one has ever been charged in connection with the murder, which caused shock and revulsion across Ireland.

Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown at a previous hearing
Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown at a previous hearing Bridie Brown, the widow of murdered GAA official Sean Brown at a previous hearing

Since his death, Mr Brown’s family, including his widow Bridie, has been present at around 40 inquest-related hearings, with the majority attended by his son Damian, who died in 2021 after a short illness.

Coroner Patrick Kinney was told Ms Brown was unable to attend an inquest hearing on Thursday such was her distress at the development.

The inquest, which opened in March, has been held up due to PSNI disclosure delays.

At Thursday’s hearing, Joseph Aiken KC, counsel for the coroner read two letters recently received from lawyers representing the PSNI.

One letter from the Crown Solicitor’s Office said that the PSNI “encountered issues arising from what can broadly be described as intelligence coverage”.

The letter went on to state that these issues will “inevitably and unavoidably require a closed hearing”.

As the coronial process does not allow for a closed hearing the letter went on to say the PSNI position is that “an inquest is not the appropriate vehicle for the continuation of the investigation into the death of Mr Brown”.

The letter added that in the event the “family seek a public inquiry into Mr Brown’s death PSNI confirms that it does not dispute that a public inquiry which would have the facility for a closed hearing to address such issues would be an appropriate method to continue the investigation into the death of Mr Brown”.

Murdered GAA official Sean Brown
Murdered GAA official Sean Brown Murdered GAA official Sean Brown

Representing the Brown family, Des Fahy KC, said they were “appalled and distressed by this development”.

“We consider the treatment of the Brown family by the state parties has now become cruel, inhumane and degrading,” he said.

Mr Fahey told the court how he outlined the contents of the letter to the Brown family remotely on Wednesday.

“I am told that Mrs Brown, who is 86-years-of age was so distressed and upset by the content of this correspondence that she was unable to attend here this morning,” he said.

“You know sir that she has been here on every single occasion.”

The scene of Sean Brown's murder
The scene of Sean Brown's murder The scene of Sean Brown's murder

Mr Fahy said the Brown family is concerned on several fronts.

“Rather than there be a discussion at this hearing about a public inquiry we consider the discussion should be about a public scandal,” he said.

“There are multiple areas of concern that arise from this correspondence.

“But from the family’s point of view we consider the correspondence from the PSNI to be both high handed and arrogant in terms of how it appears the chief constable feels that he can direct the progress or lack of progress in this inquest.

“And there sems to be a total disregard for the fact that the inquest is at hearing, we have already begun the evidence at inquest in March.”

Lawyers for the PSNI were expected to present an update on progress Public Immunity Interest (PII) certificates linked to the case.

PII certificates are used by state agencies to conceal information they don't want placed in the public domain.

Earlier this month it emerged that a Northern Ireland Office (NIO) minister, understood to be Steve Baker, issued a Public Immunity Interest (PII) certificate in relation to material provided by The Security Service, which is also known as MI5.

Members of the Brown family outside court on Thursday. Pic: Mal McCann
Members of the Brown family outside court on Thursday. Pic: Mal McCann Members of the Brown family outside court on Thursday. Pic: Mal McCann

Mr Fahy said the Brown family view the PSNI intervention as a "calculated diversion".

“In the intervening period the work that was clearly required has not been done and the day before the preliminary hearing, at which the PII opinion is due, the family receive correspondence to the effect that the chief constable ‘will not stand in the way of a public inquiry’.

“We consider this to be a calculated diversion from the work of this inquest and the view of the Brown family is clear, this inquest had begun, it has been meticulously case managed by you (the coroner).”

Mr Fahy added the family’s believe that “this PII process must be taken to its conclusion and that to talk in any shape or form about a public inquiry while there are live proceedings and this inquest is at hearing, evidences disregard for the inquest process over which you have control”.

Mr Fahy said there is a suspicion that informers are being protected.

“The expression that is used in the letter…is ‘intelligence coverage’, I am wholly at a loss as to what that means,” he said.

“But doing our best on behalf of the Brown family we believe that that relates directly to the activities and protection of state agents and informers.

“And if that is so that is an issue of fundamental importance to the ability of this inquest to be conducted in a manner which is compliant with Article Two (of the European Court of Human Rights – which protects the right to life.”

The family’s solicitor Niall Murphy, of KRW Law, said the “intervention by the Crown Solicitors on behalf of the chief constable is unprecedented and extraordinary”.

“The Brown family’s long-standing fear is that the state have known who killed Sean Brown, that his killers were paid state agents and that the state ensured that their employees, Sean’s killers were protected from prosecution.”

Mr Murphy said the Brown family are suspicious of the state’s motives.

“The Coronial Inquest process is a means for the family to receive disclosure and to examine witnesses,” he said.

“The proposal would take that right away from the family.

“The family fear that as the time for truth as to who killed Seán draws closer, the state are now engaging in obfuscatory tactics to evade justice.”

Last month the Mr Brown’s family called on new PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher to intervene after it emerged that new information disclosed by the PSNI “raises issues in relation” to previous investigations into his killing.

Earlier a coroner had heard that 18 new files of PSNI sensitive information were recently made available for review.

The potentially relevant material arising from the review exercise amounts to “two files of material” the inquest hearing was told.

Mr Brown’s murder was investigated by police in 1997 and reviewed in 2004.

The Police Ombudsman’s Office also produced a report in the same year, while a separate investigation was also carried out by the Historical Enquiries Team.

It is not known if any of these investigations had access to the newly disclosed information.

A spokesman for the Police Ombudsman said it was contacted by the PSNI "regarding the recently disclosed sensitive material".

"The Police Ombudsman is currently conducting an assessment of the material to determine if it had been previously sought or disclosed," he said.

"Police Ombudsman staff have met with the PSNI in connection with this matter."

A PSNI spokesman said: “We are 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.”