The Ministry of Defence has just one specialist staff member dealing with sensitive material for legacy inquests in the north, a coroner has been told.
The startling admission from a Ministry of Defence (MoD) official was made during an inquest hearing on Friday into the British army killing of Co Derry man Francis Bradley almost 40 years ago.
Concerns have been raised that British government agencies are involved in trying to ‘run down the clock’ ahead of a May 1 cut-off date under the contentious Legacy Act, which became law in September.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act passed into law in September and provides immunity in some circumstances along with ending civil cases and inquests that have not reached their findings stage by next May.
Mr Bradley was shot dead close to an arms dump during an SAS ambush near Toome in February 1986.
The 20-year-old's name was later added to the IRA's roll of honour.
An inquest into his shooting, which opened in Derry in April, heard how Mr Bradley had told of being threatened by police before he was shot dead.
Earlier this week Mr Bradley’s family said they were “extremely concerned” that the PSNI and Ministry of Defence (MoD) are “running down the clock” after a coroner heard his inquest could face the prospect of being ‘derailed’ over delays in producing vital information.
A new inquest was ordered by former Attorney General John Larkin in 2010.
An earlier inquest, held in 1987, heard how the fatal shots were fired by a former soldier, known as 'Soldier C'.
It emerged during an inquest review hearing on Monday that a Public Immunity Interest (PII) hearing, which was due to be heard on December 14, will not now proceed due to continuing disclosure delays by the Ministry of Defence and PSNI.
PII certificates are used by state agencies to conceal information they don't want the public to see.
During yesterday’s hearing MoD official Lucy Ahad said sensitive disclosure work marked up with proposed redactions will be completed within days and passed to the Crown Solicitor’s Office next week, before being forwarded to the Secretary of State for Defence on January 5.
Earlier, the MoD official was questioned by Karen Quinlivan KC, who acts for the Bradley family, about the number of people involved in working with sensitive material.
“It’s undeniable that we have a small number of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) able to review sensitive evidence in relation to Northern Ireland inquests,” Ms Ahad said.
“And I have been looking into this in the past few days, the reason is, this is a very specialist job.”
The MoD official added that “these are specialist roles in different parts of the MoD and there is a very small number of them”.
When pressed by Ms Quinlivan, Ms Ahad confirmed that only one MoD official “is supporting” inquests in the north.
“For the specialist military unit…I understand that there is only one officer performing that role at the minute,” she said.
“That officer has support, so there is a wider team of legal support, logistical and transport….I understand we only have a single officer that is supporting Northern Ireland inquests and that can perform this role.”
“As I say, I realise this is far from ideal and I have been assured that steps have been taken to address the situation but it’s not a quick fix…there’s a very small pool of specially trained staff.”
Earlier in the hearing Ms Quinlivan raised concerns about continued delays in providing witness statements from former British soldiers.
“A variety of excuses, and they have been excuses, have been advanced…as to why they can’t make statements,” she added.
Solicitor Fearghál Shiels of Madden and Finucane solicitors said: “That the MOD has committed only one supposed disclosure expert to consider sensitive documents across a number of inquests, involving deaths directly caused by its own servants and agents, displays not only a casual disregard towards the coronial process but complete contempt for the relatives of those who its soldiers killed.
“It serves only to confirm suspicions that there is a concerted attempt to delay inquests to the point where they become unachievable in light of the cut off date imposed by the recent Legacy Act.”