Northern Ireland

State agencies accused of trying to 'cynically derail' Sean Brown inquest

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

The family of GAA official Sean Brown has accused state agencies of “cynically” trying to “derail” his long-delayed inquest.

The family’s comments came as it emerged the GAA in Derry is set to publicly back their calls for an end to delays in his inquest caused by persistent PSNI failures to disclose important documentation.

The 61-year-old 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.

Bridie Brown, whose husband Sean was murdered in 1997.
Bridie Brown, whose husband Sean was murdered in 1997. Bridie Brown, whose husband Sean was murdered in 1997.

Collusion is strongly suspected, and several of those thought to be involved are believed to be state agents.

No-one has ever been charged.

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The inquest has been held up due to continued PSNI delays in producing disclosure material linked to Mr Brown’s murder.

Just last week, coroner Patrick Kinney confirmed the inquest will not resume in January as planned but has now been put back until March - a year after it opened.

Under the British government’s controversial Legacy Act, inquests that have not reached their findings stage by next May will be halted.

Solicitor Niall Murphy with members of Sean Brown's family
Solicitor Niall Murphy with members of Sean Brown's family Solicitor Niall Murphy with members of Sean Brown's family

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

Mrs Brown was unable to attend yet another inquest hearing in Belfast on Friday due to ongoing distress caused by the delays.

During the hearing, coroner Patrick Kinney was told of a letter sent by the Brown family to his office earlier this week.

“The past few weeks have been profoundly upsetting and dispiriting for our family,” the family wrote.

“We feel like we are being retraumatised every time we come to this courtroom.

“The responsibility for this does not lie with the coroner and his legal team.

“The responsibility for this rests only with the state parties.”

The highly respected family pointed the finger directly at state agencies.

“At every turn, the state parties - the PSNI, the Security Services and the MoD – have actively and cynically done all they could to derail this inquest,” they wrote.

“To achieve that they have, in a calculated way, ignored the directions and deadlines set down by the coroner.

“The date we have been focussing on for the resumption of this inquest has now been lost as a result.

“We believe this is part of wider, wholly cynical process whereby the current legacy procedures are systematically made not fit for purpose in an effort to promote the British government’s so-called legacy reforms.”

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

The family added that the way they have been treated is “a disgrace and a scandal”.

“Our confidence in the ability of this inquest to deliver the truth for which we have fought has been fundamentally shaken,” they added.

 During the hearing the family’s barrister, Des Fahy KC pointed out that Mrs Brown was not present because “of the upset and distress caused by her attendance last Friday”.

“If those who make the decisions that caused the delays spent just five minutes with Mrs Brown, they would understand the human toll that this is taking on her and all of her family,” he added.

Later Mr Kinney extended “best wishes” to Ms Brown.

“I am not going to rehearse recent history with anyone, you’ve been here and you’ve heard what’s happened and you’ve heard the stuttering progress that we’ve been making,” he said.

“It’s been a very onerous case management process, we have been having a lot of case management hearings to establish the progress that we now have and I understand that in itself takes its toll.

“I also commend the commitment of the whole family and their assiduous attendance at hearings demonstrating their commitment.”

Part of the delay is down to a failure by the PSNI to produce material that may be subject to Public Immunity Interest (PII) certificates.

PII certificates are used by security agencies to withhold information considered sensitive.

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, also known as MI5.

At a hearing last month the PSNI suggested that an inquest is not an “appropriate vehicle” for continuing the investigation into Mr Brown’s death and said they would not object to a public inquiry.

The Brown family say they want the inquest to continue.

During Friday’s hearing Mr Fahy also referenced the attitude of the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, to the holding of a public inquiry and told the coroner that after the matter was raised in correspondence “we got what I can only term as a holding response from the Crown Solicitor’s Office.”

A lawyer for the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said materials were provided to them on Thursday “so it would be premature to issue any response” adding he will take “instructions in relation to that”.

The family’s solicitor, Niall Murphy of KRW Law, said the family seeks “to reiterate our request for a defined position from the secretary of state”.

“For the avoidance of doubt therefore, we restate our question as to the attitude of the secretary of state, with regards to the convention of a public inquiry, now that all of the PSNI sensitive material is available to him, mindful of the express and public opinion of the chief constable who has confirmed publicly on the record, that he would not oppose an application for a Public Inquiry, if the family chose to make one.”

The Northern Ireland Office was contacted.