Decision on inquest into death of INLA leader should be taken in NI, court hears

Widow of Ronnie Bunting seeking judicial review of decision by secretary of state

Belfast High Court

Belfast High Court

 

A law officer based in Northern Ireland should take the decision on any new inquest into the assassination of an INLA chief, the High Court heard on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the widow of Ronnie Bunting claimed responsibility for ordering a fresh tribunal was wrongly transferred to the attorney general for England and Wales.

Suzanne Bunting is seeking to judicially review the move taken by the secretary of state due to the sensitivities of the case.

Her husband was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries at his west Belfast home nearly 41 years ago in an attack involving suspected state collusion.

The son of a major in the British Army, Ronnie Bunting was a founding member of the INLA after becoming involved in Irish republicanism during the early 1970s.

In October 1980 loyalist gunmen opened fire at his Downfine Gardens home, killing both him and associate Noel Little.

Mrs Bunting was also badly wounded, sustaining bullet wounds to her neck, arm and hand in the shooting.

In 2016 a newspaper reported claims that an undercover RUC unit had been watching the property due to intelligence that Bunting’s life was in danger.

The surveillance operation was allegedly withdrawn for unexplained reasons before the double murder.

According to papers in the case, the former attorney general for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC, had been considering whether to order a new inquest into the killing.

But in 2019 the secretary of state decided responsibility should switch to the British government’s chief legal adviser and advocate general for Northern Ireland.

Mrs Bunting’s lawyers claim that was an illegal move incompatible with her human rights.

Amid concerns that revealing sensitive documents in the case could damage national security, part of her bid to secure a judicial review was heard in private.

During an open session, however, barrister Hugh Southey QC insisted that a representative in Britain does not have to take responsibility.

“In general the decision should be taken in Northern Ireland by a Northern Irish official, the Attorney General, and there’s good reason for that,” he said.

Mr Justice Scoffield was told that the Secretary of State and law officer disagreed over the extent of any discretion.

Counsel also argued that the devolution of policing and justice functions to Northern Ireland was a demonstration of growing confidence in the region’s institutions.

“Confidence-building can be a gradual process, and with increased confidence maybe an understanding that sometime in the future it would be appropriate to allow decisions to be taken in Northern Ireland despite national security material being an issue,” he added.

The hearing continues.