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?'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea