Coroner John Leckey suspends inquests into controversial killings (BBC News Northern Ireland)

NI’s senior coroner John Leckey (l) said Mr Larkin (r) may have exceeded his powers

Families of a number of people killed in controversial circumstances during the Troubles in Northern Ireland have threatened legal action over a decision to suspend inquests into their deaths.

NI’s senior coroner has suspended 14 inquests that were ordered by the NI Attorney General, John Larkin.

John Leckey said Mr Larkin may have exceeded his powers by ordering the hearings.

Mr Leckey adjourned the inquests due to potential national security concerns.

The majority of cases involve people who were killed by the Army in the 1970s, including 10 people shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast in August 1971.

The suspensions were revealed at Belfast Coronors Court on Thursday morning, during a preliminary hearing into one of the 14 deaths.

‘Overstretched powers’
The family of 11-year-old Francis Rowntree were in the court expecting the hearing to get underway when Mr Lecky made the annoucement.

He told the court the attorney general may have overstretched his powers and may not have had the legal authority to order the new inquests.

The coroner has referred the matter to Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Teresa Villiers, to seek clarification, as national security issues are not devolved to the assembly and remain a matter for the Northern Ireland Office.

Francis Rowntree’s family said they were considering seeking a judicial review of Mr Leckey’s decision to suspend the inquest.

The child was hit by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier from the Royal Anglian Regiment as he played with friends at the Divis Flats complex in April 1972. He died four days later from his injuries.

‘Very upset’
The Rowntree’s family solicitor, Padraig O Muirigh, said: “The decision by the attorney general in June 2012 to direct a fresh inquest was a significant step forward for the Rowntree families’ quest for truth.

“The family are very upset by the decision of the coroner to suspend the inquest.

“They have waited 40 years to have a proper inquest into the death of their loved one and this development is a step backwards for them.”

The other adjourned preliminary hearing due to begin on Thursday concerned the loyalist murder of Gerard Slane 24 years ago.

Mr Slane, a 27-year-old father of three, was shot dead by the loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) at his home at Waterville Street, west Belfast, in September 1988.

His murder led to allegations of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces.

Judicial review
Lawyers acting for Mr Slane’s widow are to take legal action in an attempt to force the coroner to hold the inquest.

In a statement, the Ballymurphy families also said they were “very upset” by the decision to suspend fresh inquests into their loved ones’ deaths.

They said: “This decision was made without the knowledge or consultation with the families”.

They added they were also considering a judicial review of Mr Leckey’s decision.

The Ballymuphy shootings happened over a 3-day period in August 1971 following the introduction of internment.

A Catholic priest and a mother of eight were among those shot dead by the Parachute Regiment.

Inquest suspensions may be challenged (UTV)

The Ballymurphy families are considering legal action after inquests into a dozen controversial killings were suspended by Northern Ireland’s senior coroner because of potential national security concerns.

Attorney General John Larkin QC had referred the controversial cases – some of which date back 40 years – to coroner John Leckey for new inquests in an effort to find out what happened and to end years of disagreement.

But now Mr Leckey has said he feared Mr Larkin may have overstretched his powers and the matter could now go before the High Court in Belfast.

Details of the disagreement emerged as a preliminary hearing into one of the killings due to go ahead on Thursday morning was suddenly adjourned.

Mr Leckey told the hearing: “Clearly the attorney general takes a view as to his jurisdiction and powers which is diametrically opposed.”

He is to write to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the attorney general after he received an expert legal opinion on the matter seeking clarification.

Mr Leckey added: “National security was clearly to be an issue for some (inquests).”

The families of the 11 people killed by the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy in 1971 said they will consider challenging the coroner’s decision in the courts.

So too will the relatives of Francis Rowntree, who became the first rubber bullet fatality resulting from army activity after he was shot in April 1972 by a soldier from the Royal Anglican Regiment as he played with friends at the Divis Flats complex in Belfast.

They have waited 40 years to have a proper inquest into the death of their loved one and this development is a step backwards for them.

Padraig O’Muirigh, Rowntree family solicitor
“The manner in which the coroner decided to inform us of his decision was discourteous to the Rowntree family,” family solicitor Padraig O’Muirigh said.

“We are currently considering a judicial review against the coroner in relation to this decision.”

Meanwhile UUP Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott has called on Attorney General John Larkin to consider his position.

“The Attorney General is certainly proving rather accident prone to the point where I believe he must now consider his position,” said Mr Elliott.

“Today’s decision by the senior Coroner John Leckey on the grounds that in ordering coroners inquests the Attorney General John Larkin has exceeded his brief and strayed into reserved matters of National Security, is of real concern.”

Sinn Féin Justice spokesman Raymond McCartney also expressed concerns.

“This is obviously deeply concerning and upsetting for the families involved, who have already waited too long to find out the truth about the death of their loved ones,” he said.

“Not only is it disappointing that the inquests have been suspended, but the matter in which that action was taken by the Coroner showed a lack of respect and sensitivity to the families concerned.

“Previous inquests were and are seen nowadays for the sham they were and new inquests were the only means the families had of finding out the truth about the killing of their loved ones.”

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