Last Friday [March 23], what was officially described as a preliminary hearing by the Six County Coroner, John Leckey, was held into the murder of former republican prisoner Sam Marshall in Lurgan on 7th March, 1990. Ever since his murder, the Marshall family have always suspected state involvement in his death. However, the events which transpired at the Coroner’s Court in Belfast amounted to nothing less than a farce.
On Wednesday 21st March, the Coroner’s Office faxed a letter to the Marshall family’s legal representative.
Lest there be any doubt what the purpose of the proposed hearing was meant to be, the communication from the Coroner’s Office clearly and unequivocally stated:
“The agenda is:
- Arrangements to hold an inquest.”
However, from the outset of the hearing, it quickly became apparent that this agenda was not, in fact, to be adhered to.
Beginning by repeating what he said at a similar hearing in 2008 into the Marshall murder, Mr Leckey said that as a trial linked to the murder had been held (in 1992), he was now of the view that he would further delay a decision on any inquest until an investigation is conducted by the Police Ombudsman’s office in case it unearths new information.
The Coroner said: “At the present time I cannot say an inquest is necessary and I am delaying that decision until after the Police Ombudsman’s report.”
Last year, the Police Ombudsman’s office, which probes complaints against the Six County police force, was hit by a damning report on its handling of “historic” cases where collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads is suspected. As a result, all such cases were effectively put into abeyance.
A legal representative for the Six County Police Ombudsman’s office, Jim Kitson, told the hearing that it faced difficulties in investigating what he described as “historic cases”, but hoped those would be resolved and a plan to review all such cases could soon be implemented. He added that it could take at least six years before that initial process would be complete.
The Ombudsman’s legal representative also said it remains to be seen where Sam Marshall’s case will be allocated within the ‘Prioritisation Matrix’, so that the case can be investigated and reported. He confirmed that it had not even been allocated yet, and indeed could not give any assurances as to when this would take place.
The Coroner then said that he would take no further action until the Police Ombudsman’s case was completed – effectively suspending any decision on holding an inquest for at least six years or more.
Despite submissions opposing the Coroner’s move from legal representatives for the Marshall family and the two other men targeted in the shooting in 1990, Mr Leckey then closed the hearing.
In 2008, Mr Leckey directed the Marshall family to enter into a process with both the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman’s Office which the Marshall family reluctantly did.
In September last year, the Ombudsman’s Office finally wrote to the Marshall family informing them that three years on from 2008, no investigation had been initiated.
The Marshall family also reluctantly entered into a process with the HET which also commenced in 2008.
Earlier this month, on the twenty-second anniversary of Sam Marshall’s murder, his family launched a book detailing many previously unknown facts surrounding his death.
Over 400 people attended the book launch held in Lurgan on Wednesday 7th March. A second follow-up launch was also held in the Conway Mill in Belfast the following week.
Among the facts revealed in the book are:
- Sam and the two men accompanying him at the time of his murder had been subjected to intense surveillance by Special Branch and British military personnel on the night of the attack – a fact previously and persistently denied by the RUC and the British Government.
- The surveillance operation had commenced in late 1989. It was then suspended following the arrest and charging of all three men in January 1990 but was re-activated upon their release on bail.
- The operation had been initiated by Special Branch personnel who regularly briefed the British military personnel involved in the operation.
- The surveillance teams had followed the men each time they had signed for bail at Lurgan barracks prior to March 7th.
- On the night of the murder, at least nine British undercover soldiers were engaged in the surveillance operation directed against the men.
- On the night of the murder, the British soldiers were using a total of six cars: a red Ford Orion, a silver Vauxhall Cavalier, a grey Volkswagen Jetta, a grey Peugeot, a red Vauxhall Astra, and a red Austin Maestro with the registration plate bearing the number KJI 1486 – a car referred to by the two survivors of the attack and by other civilian witnesses at the time of the murder.
- All of the soldiers denied being aware of any potential threat against Sam, even though he himself had been informed by the RUC of a potential death threat against him.
- Two soldiers using the red Ford Orion drove to Lurgan Barracks to monitor the arrival and departure of Sam and his two companions.
- These two soldiers were the men seen by Sam and his two companions the front observation post at the barracks.
- Another two soldiers, using the silver Vauxhall Cavalier, parked their car and followed Sam and his two companions on foot along North Street.
- These two soldiers also admitted they were only a short distance behind Sam and his two companions when the two gunmen opened fire.
- The two soldiers also denied actually seeing the gunmen fire a total of 49 shots, but did admit to seeing the gunmen run back to the red Rover after the shooting. Neither took any action to stop the gunmen.
- In a statement made to the RUC after the murder, one of these two soldiers on foot admitted that one of the survivors of the attack, Tony McCaughey, had actually ran past him in North Street as Tony was escaping from the gunmen.
- In statements made to the RUC after the murder, none of the soldiers admitted seeing the red Rover prior to the shooting, even though it had been sighted on at least three occasions in North Street by several civilian witnesses.
- Two gloves were recovered by the RUC from the area at Halliday’s Bridge on the M1 motorway where the red Rover was burned out.
- Both gloves were placed in clearly marked and labelled evidence bags. These bags, containing the gloves, were obtained by the original RUC murder investigation team. The gloves were then “lost”.
- Eighteen members of the CID and four uniformed RUC personnel were involved in the original murder investigation team.
- The senior investigating officer over this team was Detective Chief Inspector Alan Clegg.
- A second investigation team supervised by Detective Chief Inspector McFarland interviewed the British soldiers.
- HET stated that DCI McFarland also interviewed “at least eight” of those Special Branch personnel who had been involved in briefing the British military surveillance team.
- Out of 22 RUC personnel involved in the original murder investigation, along with “at least eight” Special Branch personnel involved with nine or more British soldiers connected to the surveillance operation – totalling a possible minimum of 39 members of the state forces – the HET only interviewed four RUC personnel.
- The weapons used in the murder of Sam and the attempted murders of his two companions were ballistically linked to three other murders and one attempted murder in the Lurgan/Portadown/Dungannon area between 1991 and 1997.
- Intelligence also linked a fourth murder to that of Sam’s.
- The HET has consistently refused to indicate to our family where and when these murders took place.
- No-one was ever been convicted in relation to these other four murders and the one attempted murder.
- Although contacted by the HET, Detective Chief Inspector Clegg “did not engage”, in other words, refused to co-operate, with the HET. (Since then, Alan Clegg is deceased).
It should be pointed out many of the above facts were only disclosed to the Marshall family following a HET review of existing documentation held by the PSNI and not by a full re-investigation of the murder. The HET process in Sam’s case was solely based upon an examination of the documentation and material belonging to the RUC murder investigation team with no attempt having been made by the HET to uncover new evidence or intelligence that would actually solve his murder.
Furthermore, those facts that did emerge were deliberately withheld from the Marshall family and from the public for over twenty years.
Additionally, at a meeting with HET in 2011, the Marshall family was informed that the HET had not seen any evidence which would disprove collusion.
This would indicate that it was highly likely that the summary report of the HET review could well have been tempered for political expediency by senior officers within both the HET and the PSNI. The HET is an investigative unit attached to the PSNI. It is answerable to the Chief Constable of the PSNI. It is not independent in the true sense of the word and has been publicly criticised by several human rights organisations.
Mr Leckey has a copy of the HET review report and is aware of those facts contained in it.
What other “new” information does he now need in order to proceed with an inquest?
More significantly, what exactly happened in the 46 hours between 1.06pm on Wednesday 21st March, when the Coroner’s letter (quoted above) was faxed to the Marshall family’s legal representative, and 11.00am on Friday 23rd March when the hearing commenced which completely changed the agenda of the hearing?
Was pressure put on John Leckey to further delay making arrangements for an inquest into Sam Marshall’s murder? If so, who applied that pressure?
Any suggestion that the Coroners Court in the Six Counties is an effective or impartial means to address those cases where British state involvement is suspected was exploded by the farce that unfolded at court on Friday last.
Earlier, on the same morning as the hearing into Sam Marshall’s murder, the Coroner also further delayed commencement of the inquests into the infamous 1982 shoot-to-kill cases in which five unarmed republicans and one civilian were executed by the RUC in three separate shootings in County Armagh. In those cases, the PSNI is attempting to prevent the disclosure of many relevant documents it holds by way of Public Interest Immunity certificates. The PSNI is seeking to withhold vital sections from over 175,000 documents, containing over 1 million pages, from public disclosure.
It is quite clear that the Sam Marshall case is as explicit a case of collusion that exists – and that it is evidentially as strong in respect of collusion and British state involvement as the multiple murders of innocent civilians at Graham’s bookies on the Ormeau Road in Belfast or at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, County Down.
Yet the Six County Coroner will not even give an undertaking to hold an inquest. It is totally irrational that he wants to wait on a Police Ombudsman report, which hasn’t even been allocated in the Ombudsman’s ‘prioritisation matrix’ and, as such, may not even be looked at by the Ombudsman for at least 6 years given the existing backlog of over seventy cases involving collusion.
It was therefore unsurprising that the Marshall family reacted with justifiable anger in the aftermath of the Coroner’s decision.
The family said they had fully expected the preliminary hearing in Belfast to agree arrangements for an inquest and added: “We are very angry and upset that after having to wait for twenty two years, we are now going to have to wait for up to a further six years. We are also actively considering legal action over the period ahead.”
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