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Call for public inquiry into 1997 murder of GAA official

A coroner is to write to Northern Secretary Chris Heaton Harris calling for a public inquiry into the 1997 loyalist murder of senior GAA official Sean Brown.

Mr Justice Kinney said he expected Mr Heaton Harris to make a decision within four weeks.

The coroner ruled that due to the extent of redactions required of sensitive intelligence material provided by police and military intelligence he could not hold a proper inquest.

Last week the family was informed that the intelligence material linked 25 people, including several state agents, or informers, to the murder.

The coroner said given the redactions, to go ahead with the inquest would result in an investigation which would be “incomplete, inadequate and misleading”.

The coroner said the material contained information relevant to the investigation but could not be disclosed on the grounds of national security.

The PSNI, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, and the British security services had all made applications asking for intelligence material to be withheld.

Counsel for the family Des Fahy KC said the truth of what happened to Sean Brown was in the heavily redacted security files.

He said it could come out of the state authorities allowed it.

There was an obvious question, he said. “What do those state parties have to hide?”

A public inquiry would allow the consideration of intelligence material in closed session, something a coroner’s inquest cannot do.

The inquest hearing today was to rule on whether that intelligence material could be shared with the legal representatives of the family.

The case had been scheduled to run for four weeks, providing enough time to conclude it ahead of the guillotine date of 1 May 2024 after which all Troubles inquests will end under the UK government’s controversial legacy act.

Any outstanding inquests would be moved into a truth recovery body established by that legislation, the Independent Commission for Information Recovery and Reconciliation.

Mr Brown, who was 61, was abducted as he locked the gates of Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAA club in Co Derry in May 1997.

He was bundled into his own car, driven a distance of around 16km, and shot dead close to the village of Randalstown in Co Antrim.

His vehicle was set alight and when police arrived they found Mr Brown’s body beside the burning vehicle.

Nobody has been convicted of his murder.

A large group of supporters, including GAA President Jarlath Burns attended today’s hearing.

The family has been trying to complete an inquest into his death for many years but have faced repeated delays.

It finally began in March 2023 and moved into a process of legal discovery.

That became bogged down when it emerged that a large quantity of sensitive intelligence material relating to the murder was in police and security service files.

Lawyers for the family have been trying to have that material made available to them, but there’ve been challenges from the police and MI5 on the grounds of national security.

In one folder of intelligence documentation there are 56 pages, all of which are completely blacked out.

Last November, the PSNI wrote to the coroner to say that due to the sensitivity of the material it could not co-operate with the inquest and that it was not an appropriate vehicle to fully investigate the murder as inquests cannot hold closed hearings to consider intelligence material.

The PSNI said it would not object to the holding of a public inquiry, which does have such powers.

In January this year a hearing was told that a suspect in the murder was a serving member of the Royal Irish Regiment.

If there is to be a public inquiry that would be a decision for Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

He has said he will consider the judgement of the coroner once it is delivered.

A number of Troubles era inquests have folded in recent weeks when it became apparent that they could not be concluded before the UK’s government’s cut-off.

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