Soldiers ordered to appear at Belfast inquest: Coroner overturns government attempt to limit questioning. David McKittrick reports

A BELFAST coroner yesterday ruled that soldiers should appear in open court at an inquest into the deaths of three men shot dead by undercover troops. The decision effectively overturned a government attempt to limit severely the questioning the soldiers would face.

The Ministry of Defence is expected to contest the ruling. John Leckey, the coroner, said a restricting order issued by Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, was inappropriate in the case concerning three members of a criminal gang who were shot dead by undercover surveillance troops outside a west Belfast betting shop three years ago. He also said the soldiers would not be allowed to address the court from behind special screens to protect their identities.

Mr Rifkind had signed a Public Interest Immunity Certificate (PIIC) to restrict soldiers' evidence to events surrounding the shootings, excluding answers to questions on its background and context.

The men killed were John McNeill, 43, Eddie Hale, 25, and Peter Thompson, 23. Two of them were carrying imitation firearms when they were shot as they left the betting shop. The third was killed in a car outside.

Members of their families said they were amazed by yesterday's ruling, one of them praising the coroner for his 'courageous' decision. The Northern Ireland inquest system has, over the years, been incrementally tightened to the extent that critics say it has become next to meaningless.

The restrictions mean that the two soldiers who shot the three men will not appear at the inquest. Those who will give evidence, whether from behind screens or in the open, are other soldiers who did not actually pull the trigger.

The question of lethal force as used by the security forces is a very controversial issue in Northern Ireland, where the belief is widespread in the nationalist community that the system has been constructed to provide one law for terrorist suspects and another for soldiers and policemen.

After years of legal challenges and appeals to higher courts, a stream of inquests is now being held on contentious 'shoot to kill' cases. In addition a number of members of the security forces have been charged with murder and are awaiting trial.

Controversial shootings receive much attention when they happen, followed by more when the decision is announced on whether or not the troops or police involved are to be charged. Inquests, even though they normally take place years after the event, provide a further occasion for protests, with families of the dead often boycotting the proceedings.

The Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions ordered no prosecutions in relation to the betting shop killings. Then in September 1991 he ordered the RUC to reopen the investigation following a BBC Panorama programme which included interviews with eyewitnesses. Again, however, no charges were brought.

PIICs were used by the Ministry of Defence in the inquests on three IRA members shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar and in an inquest on one of the incidents in the Stalker affair. The authorities clearly regard it as a useful device in concealing the activities of undercover troops. Crown lawyers will be studying the coroner's detailed written ruling over the weekend and are likely to ask for a judicial review of his decision.

Mark Thompson, the brother of one of the dead men, said: 'I was surprised by the decision. I don't feel soldiers should receive any preferential treatment. The ordinary public aren't protected by any screens so why should they be?'