Repeal of shameful legacy legislation must be priority for new government - The Irish News view

Historical cases before courts demonstrate the folly of closing down avenues to justice for families

Relatives of Bloody Sunday victims packed out the public gallery
Relatives of Bloody Sunday victims packed out the public gallery of a court as a former soldier accused of murder made his first appearance yesterday (Brian Lawless/PA)

Should any further evidence be required of the folly of the outgoing Conservative government’s reviled legacy legislation, two historical cases which came before the courts yesterday demonstrated what is at stake for victims and their families.

In Belfast Crown Court, relatives of people killed on Bloody Sunday packed out the public gallery for the first appearance by a former soldier accused of murdering James Wray and William McKinney in January 1972.

The ex-paratrooper, identified only as ‘Soldier F’, is also charged with five attempted murders and a judge is currently hearing an application by his lawyers to have the case dismissed.

Although shielded from the main body of the court to protect his anonymity, and with the merits of the prosecution case still to be determined by a judge, it was a landmark day nonetheless in the long and dignified campaign for justice maintained by all those affected by the terrible events in Derry more than half a century ago.

John Kelly (brother of Michael Kelly)
and Mickey McKinney (brother of William McKinney) arrive at Belfast Crown Court on Friday, as a No bill application is to be heard in Soldier F prosecution in relation to Bloody Sunday. 
John Kelly (brother of Michael Kelly) and Mickey McKinney (brother of William McKinney) arrive at Belfast Crown Court yesterday for the first appearance by 'Soldier F'. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

In the context of the British government’s shameful Legacy Act, which seeks to close down future Troubles-related prosecutions, inquests and other legal proceedings, it also gives a lie to suggestions that the justice system cannot deliver for families and victims when interrogating events contentious stretching back several decades.

This was further demonstrated in the case of a former RUC officer who was sentenced to 12 months in prison yesterday for conspiring to pervert the course of justice in connection with the sectarian killing of Robert Hamill 27 years ago.

Robert Cecil Atkinson (71) appeared before Craigavon Crown Court, where a judge said he had been a “disgrace to (his) uniform” for giving false information to police making inquiries about a phone call from his home following the attack on the 25-year-old Catholic by a loyalist mob in Portadown.

Pacemaker Press 07-06-2024: 
Robert Atkinson pictured outside Craigavon court on Friday morning.
Picture By: Pacemaker Press.
Att newsdesk. Perverting justice Robert Hamill - ex cop adjourned

Copy by Paul Higgins. 07973157553

Pics by pacemaker. 07774 179 710

Fri 14 June Õ24 

A former police officer, labelled by a judge as a Òdisgrace to the uniform,Ó was jailed for a year today (fri) after he admitted, almost 30 years later, to conspiring to cover up a phonically he made to the home of a murder suspect within hours of Robert Hamill being fatally beaten by a loyalist mob.

Jailing 70-year-old retired RUC Reserve Const. Robert Cecil Atkinson at Craigavon Crown Court, Judge Patrick Lynch KC told the pensioner ÒitÕs a disgrace that you as a serving police officer should stoop so low as to deliberately mislead an investigation which you knew concerned a serious assault you had witnessed.Ó

ÒUltimately it turned into a murder enquiry where the son of the household you contacted was a suspect,Ó the judge told Atkinson, highlighting that the pensioner Òis the only person in this courtroomÓ who could shed light on the contents of that call.

Judge Lynch added however that Atkinson has never shown any co-operation and Òeven now will not shed light on the fateful phone call.Ó

ÒThe public are entitled to expect the highest degree of probity from those entrusted to police and enforce the law,Ó the judge told Atkinson and declared: ÒYou have been a disgrace to the uniform.Ó

ÒYou continued to serve as a police officer for years afterwards as a criminal because thereÕs no other description for you. It would seem to me and the wider general public to be an affront if you, the pro-generator  and the beneficiary of the wider conspiracy should escape the fate of Mr McKee who ended up in prison serving a sentence of six months,Ó the judge concluded as he jailed the liar. 

On the second day of his trial last April Atkinson, from the Brownstone Road in Portadown, admitted that he had conspired with Andrea and Michael McKee to pervert the course of justice. 

The particulars of the offence disclose that between September and 30 October 1997  retired RUC Reserve Const. Atkinson Òconspired together with Andrea Louise McKee, James Michael Robert McKee and others, to do an act which had a tendency to pervert the course of public justice in that you agreed to give false information to police officers making enquiries about a telephone call made from your house on 27 April 1997 at 08.37 hours, as to the identity of the person making that call.Ó

Following AtkinsonÕs admission, the PPS offered no further evidence against either defendantÕs wife Eleanor Atkinson, 70, or against 72-year-old Kenneth Hanvey, from the Derryanvil Road in Portadown and accordingly, not guilty verdicts were recorded in their cases. 

The charges arise after Robert Hamill was beaten by a loyalist mob in the early hours of 27 April 1997 and his murder was the subject of a public inquiry because it was alleged that four police officers were positioned in a police vehicle near the scene of the attack but did not intervene.

Mr Atkinson was one of the officers in the police vehicle on the night Mr Hamill was attacked and the RUC investigation turned into a murder enquiry after the 25-year-old sadly succumbed to his injuries. 

A total of six individuals, including Allister Hanvey, were charged with the murder but the charges against five of them, including Hanvey, were subsequently withdrawn due to insufficient evidence to prosecute while the sixth person, Paul Rodney Marc Hobson, was acquitted following a trial, a trial where Const. Atkinson gave evidence. 

The charge against Atkinson arose because despite the fact that he rang the Hanvey household while Robert Hamill lay fatally injured in hospital, he concocted a story with the McKees that it had been Michael McKee who made the call.
Robert Cecil Atkinson (71) pictured outside Craigavon Crown Court where he was sentenced for conspiring to pervert the course of justice

Mr Hamill’s family said there was some limited comfort for the family in the outcome of the case, albeit tinged with sadness that their mother, who died a few weeks ago, did not live to witness it.

They now anticipate publication of the findings of a public inquiry conducted back in 2009, but whose report could not be made public because of legal proceedings.

Robert Hamill who was killed by a loyalist mob in 1996
Robert Hamill was killed by a loyalist mob in 1997

For other families whose remaining hope of achieving justice in their loved one’s cases was effectively extinguished by the Legacy Act, attention turns to the outcome of the general election next month and the promise of a Labour government repealing the legislation.

Attention now turns to the outcome of the general election next month and the promise of a Labour government repealing the reviled legacy legislation

Encouragingly, the party’s manifesto this week reiterated that pledge and spoke of returning to the principles of the Stormont House Agreement, the only approach to legacy issues to have received significant political support.

The process of unpicking the damage done by the Tory government on a range of fronts will not be straightforward but that work cannot begin too soon.