The Ministry of Defence has been accused of “deliberately delaying” a fresh inquest into the death of a man in Londonderry in 1978 ahead of new legislation which would stop court cases around Northern Ireland’s past.
However, a barrister for the MoD told Belfast Coroner’s Court that they are currently stretched with finite resources serving a number of legacy inquests.
Fresh inquests into killing of three IRA men in Coagh, Co Tyrone in 1991, Francis Bradley in Co Londonderry in 1986 and the shooting of five civilians in Springhill in west Belfast in 1972 are among inquests to be heard in 2023.
Patrick Duffy, 50, was shot dead in November 1978 at a house in the Brandywell area of Derry by British soldiers.
The Duffy family have campaigned for a fresh inquest to examine the circumstances of the incident.
In 2019, Attorney General John Larkin directed that a fresh inquest should take place.
A preliminary hearing at Belfast Coroner’s Court on Wednesday heard that soldiers involved have not yet been identified and work is ongoing by the MoD, PSNI and Northern Ireland Office to identify and supply any relevant material.
Barrister Stephen Toal, acting for the Duffy family, contended that with government legislation going through Parliament which would see court cases to do with the Troubles stopped, the MoD is attempting to delay this inquest so it may never be heard.
“The Ministry of Defence has displayed a questionable attitude towards the administration of justice and other inquests and civil claims,” he said.
“But they seem to have taken it to another level in this particular inquest.
“Not only have they not bothered to try and ascertain the identity of these soldiers, but they’re also saying that they have limited resources so nothing will be done urgently or at all in certain circumstances and this is all in the context of the legislation which is impending, and it seems to us, from our perspective, that this is a deliberate tactic of delay, in order to frustrate the holding of this inquest at any point.”
He referred to a five-year plan announced in 2019 to deal with outstanding legacy inquests being “to a large extent set aside”.
He said a “compression of cases in recent times doesn’t make life particularly easy for state parties to these proceedings”, adding “particularly when they have finite resources”.
“The MoD are doing all they can to respond … but really it’s not appropriate my learned friend would make the remarks he has without appreciating the demands on the MoD to meet a large number of other inquests, four or five of which have been listed for early next year,” he said.
“It is not a case of the state participants doing nothing, they are continually working through these inquests with finite resources, therefore we have to look carefully at where this inquest, if it is listed, would sit alongside other inquests which have been listed.”
Coroner Fiona Bagnall said she understands the frustration of the Duffy family, but added: “I have to work within the world that I’m in”.
“If we do have dates which the MoD have signed up to, I would be inclined to work with those dates at this point in time because it’s more important that we do get the progress made than setting time frames that are not met,” she said.
She said she fully expects the dates set by the MoD to be met.
Meanwhile the court heard the Duffy family had previously requested that the inquest be heard in Derry.
Mr Toal urged the coroner to adopt an approach used in some other inquests that sections of evidence are heard in modules to allow the inquest be open sooner, even if it has to adjourn for periods before the next module.
“That would be a huge milestone for this particular family who have waited decades to have the truth of this matter investigated,” he said.
In terms of venue, he said the family would like the conclusions to be delivered in Derry even if rest is heard elsewhere.
“It’s an important matter for them, it not only affects them but it affects the local community in which they grew up in,” he said.
“It’s their preference that it all be heard in Derry but if that is not possible their primary submission is that the inquest is opened as soon as possible in order to receive the civilian witnesses.”
Ms Bagnall said she would “park” looking at the dates and models for the inquest until she has had a “feel for the papers” in the case.
“We will revisit this issues probably in the next preliminary hearing,” she said.
Another preliminary hearing is to take place on December 14.