Coroner urges public inquiry into GAA official’s murder as inquest ‘compromised’

Sean Brown abducted and killed by loyalist paramilitaries outside Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in Derry in 1997

A coroner has ruled that an inquest into the murder of a senior GAA official in Northern Ireland cannot proceed due to the extent of sensitive state material being withheld from the proceedings on national security grounds.

Announcing the Public Interest Immunity (PII) ruling in Belfast, Mr Justice Kinney said he will be writing to Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, calling on the Government to establish a public inquiry into Sean Brown’s killing by loyalists.

Mr Brown (61) was abducted and killed by loyalist paramilitaries as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in Derry in May 1997.

Mr Justice Kinney’s ruling comes after state agencies applied for multiple redactions on sensitive files related to the murder.


Preliminary inquest proceedings have already heard that in excess of 25 people have been linked by intelligence to the murder, including several state agents. No one has been convicted of Mr Brown’s murder.

During his ruling, Mr Justice Kinney heavily criticised the way the state parties had handled the disclosure process, branding repeated delays “deplorable and, frankly, inexcusable”.

He said the extent of material he had agreed to exempt from being used as evidence at the inquest meant he could not comply with his statutory duty to investigate the circumstances of Mr Brown’s death.

The coroner said an inquest is unable to hear evidence in closed proceedings, and noted that a public inquiry could examine such sensitive materials.

“I am satisfied that my duty to carry out a full, fair and fearless investigation into Mr Brown’s death is seriously compromised as issues of central importance to the death cannot be dealt with by the inquest process,” he said.

The coroner said he is unable to make a “proper analysis” of the material that has been redacted as a result of the Public Interest Immunity process.

“In those circumstances, and with considerable regret, I have concluded that I cannot continue with this inquest,” he said. “To do so would inevitably result in an inquest that would be incomplete, inadequate, and misleading.”

Mr Justice Kinney acknowledged that his decision will cause “further pain and anguish” for Mr Brown’s family.

The coroner said he expects a reply from the Government on his request for a public inquiry within four weeks.

Mr Justice Kinney said Mr Brown was an “entirely innocent man” who was subject to a “planned execution” by loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gunmen.

“His murder was senseless,” he said.

The coroner said he could not provide a satisfactory answer to the family’s question as to why Mr Brown was murdered.

He said the victim was at the “heart of his family and his community”.

“He was a man of whom his family are justifiably proud. He was the kind of person our society needs and his loss is truly felt in that wider sense.”

The coroner praised the family’s long fight for justice.

“The inquest process as it stands cannot provide what you desire or deserve,” he said.

The public gallery in Belfast High Court was packed with members of the Brown family and supporters, including senior GAA officials, among them association president Jarlath Burns.

Mark Robinson KC, representing Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Heaton-Harris, said he will carefully consider the ruling.

He said the Cabinet minister acknowledges the “suffering” the murder has caused.

Barrister for the Brown family Des Fahy KC said that, while they did not want the inquest to stop, they accept the ruling.

Mr Fahy said the family’s reaction was a mixture of “sadness and anger”.

“This is not a legal process where the Brown family is frustrated because they have not been able to find out the truth about the murder of Sean Brown,” he said.

“That’s because the truth about what happened is right here in these folders of sensitive material about the murder, but it can’t come out and it can’t be revealed by you [the coroner] because of the many hundreds of redactions that have been made by the Chief Constable of the PSNI and by the security services.”

In a statement on Monday, the GAA said it was “disappointed that the failure of British security forces to release material relating to the murder of former Bellaghy chairperson Seán Brown means an inquest cannot proceed but welcomes the call from Coroner Mr. Justice Kinney for a full public inquiry.

The Association acknowledges the work and diligence of the coroner and will continue to assist and support the Brown family in their quest for full disclosure, truth and justice after a 27-year wait.” – PA