Northern Ireland’s senior coroner has said a public inquiry would be the most appropriate way of investigating alleged links between a series of loyalist paramilitary murders in the 1990s.
John Leckey was responding to a request from the widow of a hotel doorman shot dead by Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gunmen to widen the inquest into his death to cover six more killings.
Seamus Dillon, 45, a former paramilitary prisoner, was gunned down outside the Glengannon Hotel in Dungannon in December 1997.
At a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast, a lawyer for his widow Martina asked Mr Leckey if he would be willing to widen his examination to cover potential links with other loyalist murders as part of an all-encompassing “thematic” inquest into all the deaths.
The request by Mrs Dillon’s legal team was based on information disclosed to it by the police as part of the preparatory inquest steps.
But Mr Leckey expressed doubt about the practicality of conducting such a wide-ranging exercise through the coroner’s court.
“If I agree there should be a thematic approach the administrative difficulties in pulling all the strands together would be immense given there would be a multiplicity of legal representatives,” he said.
Mr Leckey suggested a public inquiry may be a better way to conduct a wider investigation, but said the authority to order such a probe rested with politicians, not him.
“It seems to me a thematic approach is public inquiry territory,” he said.
The coroner suggested that Mrs Dillon’s legal representatives write to a government minister if they wanted to pursue the public inquiry route.
He indicated his intention to proceed with Mr Dillon’s inquest as a single case and set a provisional start date of November 10 this year.
The killing of Mr Dillon, a father-of-three from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, happened hours after LVF leader Billy Wright was gunned down inside the Maze prison and was seen as a revenge strike by the loyalist’s associates.
The LVF was formed a year earlier as a splinter group of the UVF.
Ahead of today’s preliminary hearing, Mrs Dillon’s solicitor Kevin Winters had written to the coroner asking him to widen the remit of the inquest to cover the UVF murders of:
:: former republican prisoner Sam Marshall outside a police station in Lurgan in 1990
:: Catholic workman Gervais Lynch at his home in Magheralin near Lurgan in 1991
:: Catholic brothers Gerard and Rory Cairns, aged 22 and 18, in their home in Bleary near Lurgan in 1993.
:: Grocer Patrick Shields and his son Diarmuid in their shop at Lisnagleer crossroads near Dungannon in 1993.
During proceedings in court on Wednesday, Fiona Doherty, a lawyer representing the coroner, pointed out legal obstacles that would potentially prevent Mr Leckey holding inquests into all the deaths, even if he was inclined to do so.
Of the other deaths outlined, she said an inquest had already been held into one case; another was ongoing under the auspices of another coroner; and an application to have an inquest into a third was still awaiting a ruling by the attorney general.
Ms Doherty said she was only ever aware of a wider thematic approach being taken on two occasions - with nine deaths linked to the security forces’ alleged shoot-to-kill policy in the 1980s and the British Army shootings of 10 people over a three day period in Ballymurphy in 1971.
But she suggested the rationale for incorporating those deaths into two inquest processes, which are ongoing, was more compelling.
“There are some distinct differences between those cases and the cases listed here,” she said.
The lawyer stressed that Mr Leckey did have the power to assess wider issues as part of the probe into Mr Dillon’s death.
Mr Leckey added: “I want to assure the family that that will be a consideration.”
After the hearing Mr Winters welcomed the coroner’s comments.
“We are very encouraged by the coroner’s preliminary assessment of our application when he indicated that perhaps the most appropriate way to deal with this was by way of a public inquiry,” he said.
Mr Winters confirmed that he would write to relevant ministers to raise the issue of holding a public inquiry.
At an earlier preliminary hearing, a lawyer representing Mr Dillon’s older brother Roger had requested representation at the inquest separately from the rest of his relatives due to family difficulties.
Mr Leckey today agreed to grant Mr Dillon “interested party” status and urged his representatives to “get the wheels in motion” in terms of requesting disclosure of case files related to the shooting.