Police should fast-track the review of evidence against a one-time suspect in the Kingsmill massacre who went on to secure a UK government comfort letter, an inquest has heard.
Two suspects named in documents related to the republican paramilitary murders of 10 Protestant workmen near the Co Armagh village of Kingsmill in 1976 received On The Run (OTR) letters around 30 years later assuring them they were not being actively sought by the authorities in the UK.
One of those individuals has since died, but on Wednesday a long-running inquest into the sectarian outrage heard calls for closer scrutiny of the decision to hand the surviving suspect a letter.
A lawyer for some of the bereaved urged coroner Brian Sherrard to ask detectives to prioritise the case.
On The Runs (OTRs) were suspects fleeing potential imprisonment for murders and other serious offences during the Troubles.
I remain open minded and positive in relation to having someone here to talk to me about On The Runs. I would then decide the parameters of that questioningCoroner Brian Sherrard
A contentious process, agreed between Sinn Fein and the last Labour government, saw letters sent to republicans during the 2000s informing them they were not being sought by the authorities in the UK.
After a critical report on the workings of the scheme by Lady Justice Hallett, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) undertook a review of 228 individuals considered under it, with Lady Hallett identifying a number of cases that should be treated as a priority.
A lawyer for the PSNI told Mr Sherrard at a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast that the surviving Kingsmill suspect who possessed a letter was not one of the those priority cases and, as such, a review into the circumstances of that letter had not yet started.
In response Alan Kane QC, representing some victims, suggested that the coroner might “encourage if not ask” the PSNI to turn its focus to the Kingsmill suspect so “the work of this inquest could be brought to a conclusion sooner rather than later”.
Mr Sherrard said he would reflect on the request, adding that he had an “open mind” on the matter.
The coroner said both OTR recipients were only mentioned once as suspects in all the files related to the killings and, as consequence, might be considered “peripheral” to the case, given the number of other suspects identified in the papers.
Nevertheless, he said he would consider whether it was appropriate to request that a UK government representative appear before the inquest to explain issues related to the issue of the letters.
“I remain open minded and positive in relation to having someone here to talk to me about On The Runs,” he said.
“I would then decide the parameters of that questioning.”
In another development, the coroner took the unusual step of confirming that an individual arrested in 2016 in connection with a palm print found on a suspected Kingsmill getaway vehicle was not a man a daily newspaper alleged was the owner of the print.
Mr Sherrard said he was responding to a “unique situation” in an effort to “address any confusion” among family members caused by the article.
The coroner made clear he would not be releasing any further information about people named on Kingsmill files as suspects, who are referred to in court only by coded ciphers.
“The cipher system remains sacrosanct,” he added.
No action was taken against the man who allegedly owned the palm print, with the Public Prosecution Service explaining in 2017 that there was “insufficient evidence” to offer a reasonable prospect of conviction.