Editorial: Vindication for family of Rosaleen O'Kane as High Court says police failure to investigate her murder "shocking and disgraceful"

After almost half-a-century of pain and loss, the family of north Belfast woman Rosaleen O'Kane have finally been vindicated in their belief that her murder was never investigated properly, with the High Court describing police failures as "shocking and disgraceful".

Ms O'Kane was the victim of a horrific crime. Her badly burnt and naked body was found at her Cliftonpark Avenue flat in September 1976; an autopsy was unable to determine a cause of death, but the 33-year-old's skull was fractured and fires had been set in several places.

No suspects were ever arrested, interviewed or spoken to, despite several potential leads being identified. For example, detectives received information naming three people who were allegedly involved in setting fire to Ms O'Kane's flat and, following her funeral, two police officers indicated that she had indeed been murdered.

Mr Justice Humphreys was scathing about the lack of activity by police between 1976 and 2002, when they identified a need to speak to a witness from 1976. Yet nothing was done about this, and the witness died in 2011.

The PSNI argued that, with 1,100 legacy cases to deal with, it had to balance its "operational choices" against resources.

But Mr Justice Humphreys, who declared that the police had breached their legal duty to take steps to investigate the death and bring those responsible to justice, said the level of inactivity was "both egregious and inexplicable".

One of the more unusual elements of the case was a suggestion that 'black magic' may have been involved. However, it is sadly far more plausible that Ms O'Kane was the victim of a sectarian killing.

It is impossible to have anything other than the deepest sympathy for Ms O'Kane's family, who will be able to draw some solace from Mr Justice Humphreys's unambiguous ruling.

Kathleen Graham, Ms O'Kane's sister, said the judge had accepted the family's argument that "police did not do what they should have done".

Like the rest of Northern Ireland, Belfast was convulsed by the Troubles during the 1970s, and there is no doubt that the north of the city was especially affected by campaigns of sectarian attacks, killings and bombings.

But that only makes the treatment of Ms O'Kane's killing all the more reprehensible; it is not unreasonable to imagine that if investigative opportunities had been thoroughly pursued at the time, other attacks and killings – in this case, those targeted at innocent Catholics – could well have been prevented and the perpetrators apprehended and prosecuted.