The police’s treatment of the family of a murdered GAA official during inquest proceedings has been “cruel, inhumane and degrading”, a lawyer has said. Des Fahy KC made the comments as it emerged in court that the PSNI would not object to a public inquiry being held into the murder of Sean Brown, but do not believe an inquest is the “appropriate vehicle” to investigate his death. However, Mr Brown’s family have rejected this and stated that they want the inquest process to continue.
Mr Brown, 61, was abducted and killed by loyalists as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in Co Derry in May 1997. No one has been convicted of his murder. His inquest began in March and is scheduled to resume next year. The proceedings are taking place against the backdrop of the Government’s new Legacy Act, which states that any legacy inquests that have not reached the point of verdict by May 1 2024 will be discontinued. Some members of Mr Brown’s family attended the latest review hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday. Opening the hearing, counsel for the coroner Joseph Aiken KC, read out the contents of two letters received from the Crown Solicitor’s Office on behalf of the PSNI relating to the case on Wednesday. The first letter stated that, during the disclosure process, the PSNI had encountered issues around “intelligence coverage”. The letter stated that this meant the case would “inevitably and unavoidably require a closed hearing”. The letter added: “In the absence of a closed material procedure mechanism in the coronial jurisdiction to address the issue of intelligence coverage, the PSNI position is that an inquest is not the appropriate vehicle for the continuation of the investigation into the death of Mr Brown.” It continued: “In the event that the family seek a public inquiry into Mr Brown’s death, PSNI confirms that it does not dispute that a public inquiry, which would have the facility for a closed hearing to address such issues, would be an appropriate method to continue the investigation into the death of Mr Brown.” The letter also stated that PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher had issued an open invitation to meet with the Brown family. Addressing the coroner, Mr Aiken said: “On any level given this is 2023 and Mr Brown was murdered in 1997, you might understandably consider this an extraordinary situation.” The second letter dealt with progress on the public interest immunity (PII) process. Ahead of the inquest proceedings resuming, material relating to the murder must be security-vetted and distributed to the legal parties involved. A separate hearing will be needed to consider any applications made by police or the security services to redact evidence on PII grounds. The PSNI correspondence said there were several weeks of work still to be completed in the PII process. Representing the PSNI, Mark Robinson KC said the disclosure process was an “extensive piece of work”. He added that it was a “detailed and laborious process and we have to get it right”. Coroner Mr Justice Kinney accused the PSNI of attempting to give directions of the pace at which the case could be prepared for hearing. Mr Fahy said: “The Brown family are appalled and distressed by this development. “The treatment of the Brown family by the state parties has now become cruel, inhumane and degrading.” He said Sean Brown’s 86-year-old widow Bridie had been so upset by the contents of the PSNI correspondence that she had been unable to attend court. Mr Fahy said: “Rather than there being discussion about a public inquiry, we consider that the discussion should be about a public scandal. “We consider the correspondence from the PSNI to be both high-handed and arrogant, in terms of how it appears, the chief constable feels he can direct the progress or lack of progress of this inquest.” Mr Fahy also said the Brown family are concerned that the correspondence indicated that information about the murder of Mr Brown had not been provided to previous investigations into his death. He said: “It is a source of incredible disquiet to them that material that is now part of this process was not provided to two previous investigations into this murder. “What else is being hidden by the state parties?” Mr Fahy said he believed the phrase “intelligence coverage” referred to the “activities of state agents and informers”. Mr Justice Kinney said he would proceed with the PII process and would “micro-manage” the case if necessary. He ruled that another review would be held on December 1. Speaking outside court, Mr Brown’s daughter Siobhan said the hearing had been another blow to the family. Ms Brown said: “The inquest into my father’s murder started earlier this year and the plan was that it was to start again at the beginning of January, it doesn’t look like that is going to be an option. “The inquest opened and we want to see that brought to conclusion.”
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