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How the 1997 loyalist murder of Bellaghy GAA chairman Seán Brown remains unsolved

Family’s efforts to uncover what happened that night continues to be stymied at almost every turn and now the Legacy Bill looks to be the next hurdle

“Another review,” said Judge Patrick Kinney with a grimace at Belfast Coroner’s Court on Friday morning. The hearing was the latest step along an interminable road for the family of Seán Brown, the Bellaghy GAA chairman murdered by loyalists as he was locking up the club gates on May 12th 1997. There have been so many hearings, so many delays, so many reviews.

“I’m reluctant but I do think it’s helped the process to date,” Judge Kinney continued. “I’m sorry that people have been inconvenienced about coming back here so frequently ... I see so many of the family here again this morning. We are coming to the end of what has become a long and difficult, stressful journey for you. We are getting there.”

“There” has become a moveable feast on so many occasions over the past two-and-a-half decades that the Browns can be forgiven for choosing to believe it when they see it. On Monday night at the Derry GAA county convention, the county board made special mention of the case in its annual report. The anger and frustration in Bellaghy and beyond is palpable.

“It is now 26 years since the brutal murder of Bellaghy GAA chairman Seán Brown,” read the report. “Throughout that time, the trauma of the Brown family has been compounded by the failure of the authorities to conduct a proper inquiry into his death.


“Derry GAA stands firm in our support for the Brown family and calls for an end to the ongoing delays in the inquest process. Sean Brown was a faithful servant of the entire community and devoted his life to serving others. The Brown family deserve better. The Brown family deserve the support of the entire GAA community.”

Seán Brown was 61 when he was abducted by a loyalist gang at the Bellaghy Wolfe Tones GAA ground. He was driven 10 miles to Randallstown where he was shot six times. His body was later found there, inside a burned-out car. Nobody has ever been charged with his murder.

It took until March of this year for an inquest to finally get underway but the progress has been slow to the point of grinding. There remains the very real fear that the family will never find out the truth of what happened, not to mind ever seeing anyone brought to justice for it.

That is particularly true now that the clock is ticking. Earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill became law in the UK, meaning that all open inquests into deaths that took place during the conflict must have their business completed by May 1st, 2024. The Seán Brown inquest is due to resume in March. Even if there are no further delays, the timetable for completion looks intolerably tight. There’s every chance that the whole thing runs out of road before it gets finished.

“That would be so disheartening,” says Clare Loughran, Seán Brown’s daughter who was a 19-year-old college student when her father was murdered. “We’ve all built ourselves up for so long for something like this. We’ve all put such an incredible amount of effort into it. Emotionally, physically, we’ve put so much into it. Our legal team, the other legal teams as well – everybody has put so much into it.

“And you could just end up feeling like, what was it all for? Why put yourself emotionally through so very, very much? It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to hear. It would just be very disappointing. But also, we would be incredibly angry. This was scheduled to start last September. It was supposed to be finished really in October. We should be finished by now.

“But there has been deliberate delay after deliberate delay. And we’re sitting now, with a date in March and we really are very conscious of, ‘Will it even happen then?’ You’ve constantly got that threat of May coming over your shoulder.”

The Legacy Bill has been that rare thing in Northern Ireland – an issue on which both sides of the divide are in agreement. As in, everyone hates it. The British government has brought it in to draw a line under the Troubles, as if such a line is possible or even advisable. The effect of it will be to end all criminal and civil investigations and replace them with inquiries carried out by a new independent body. Crucially, that body will have the power to grant conditional amnesties for perpetrators.

All of which might seem a reasonable, albeit unsatisfactory, way forward. The Troubles are over, life goes on, society has to heal, etc, etc. But as always in Northern Ireland, nothing is that simple. There are currently somewhere in the region of 80 inquests ongoing into deaths that took place during the conflict. And the barbed wire running through at least a portion of them is the incredibly sensitive topic of state collusion and double agents.

Inquests need evidence and they need witnesses. Some of the people involved in the murders that have led to the inquests were undoubtedly involved in the so-called dirty war as informers. Hence, so many of the inquests eventually run up against the brick wall of state agencies slow-walking the release of documents.

They are able to do this through the use of Public Immunity Interest (PII) certificates, which are generally used by security services to withhold information they consider to be sensitive. The PII documents have to be collated and presented and ruled upon as to their admissibility. In the case of the people who abducted and murdered Seán Brown, the strong suspicion is that someone is being protected by all the delays.

The Brown case is a perfect example of where the rubber meets the road. An act of parliament designed to allow the political classes in Britain to move along and forget about the Troubles has the effect of leaving families like the Browns whistling in the wind. The fear is that the Legacy Bill will ultimately see everything fizzle out next May without the truth seeing the light of day.

Bridie Brown is 86 years old and between her and the rest of the family, they’ve been present at every one of over 40 inquest hearings down through the years. When the PSNI said in a letter a few weeks back that an inquest might not be the appropriate vehicle for continuing the investigation – and suggesting instead that a public inquiry would be better – Bridie was so distressed that she finally chose to stay home and sit out the next one.

The family’s solicitor Niall Murphy was scathing at the time at what looked like an unsubtle stalling tactic. A public inquiry would be great, if it ever happened. But it’s not in the PSNI’s gift to provide one – that’s the responsibility of the Secretary of State. And given that the whole point of the Legacy Bill is to move on from the past, nobody has any confidence in Chris Heaton-Harris – or whoever comes after him – in setting one up.

“The Brown family’s long-standing fear,” said Murphy when the letter came out, “is that the state have known who killed Seán Brown, that his killers were paid state agents and that the state ensured that their employees, Seán’s killers, were protected from prosecution.”

At the coroner’s court yesterday, the Brown family’s barrister Des Fahy pointedly asked Mark Robinson, counsel for both the Secretary of State and the chief constable of the PSNI, about the public inquiry.

“The elephant in the room here,” Fahy said, “is the stated view of the chief constable [of the PSNI] that these inquests may not be viable and that the chief constable would not stand in the way of a public inquiry should that be sought by the Brown family. On the last two occasions that we’ve been together, I have asked for the Secretary of State’s position in relation to a public inquiry. We would very much welcome the Secretary of State’s view on that.”

In response, Robinson said: “The position is that management of the inquest is a matter for the court. The position in relation to the public inquiry will be considered after the court issues its PII ruling.”

All of which only adds to the Brown family’s frustrations. For an inquest to work, they need the PSNI to take a full part. The PSNI are suggesting a public inquiry they can’t provide. The Secretary of State won’t consider a public inquiry until the inquest does its work. And round and round it goes, with just four-and-a-half months remaining until the sand runs through the hourglass.

“We have now reached a stage in this process where what is happening is re-traumatising the family, 26 years after the murder of Sean Brown,” Fahy said in court the week before last. “The responsibility, the Brown family feel, lies solely with the state parties and their treatment by the state parties is a matter of public shame and public disgrace.

“It is impossible for the Brown family to escape the conclusion that the state parties are running down the clock so we do not have sufficient court time to hear this inquest by the cut-off date.”

All the while, the Browns keep trucking. They turn up at every hearing, leaving home before dawn to make it into Belfast in time for early-morning starts. Clare’s brother Damien fought for years to get answers before his death in 2021 – the time and effort and heartbreak he put into it is as much a motivation for them now as the murder itself ever was. That they keep hitting new obstacles would be demoralising to them, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s never been any other way.

“Even on the night itself,” says Clare. “It was a Monday night, I had gone to bed. Poor Mummy didn’t waken us – it was myself and my brother Seán who were in the house. I heard a bit of a commotion downstairs maybe around five or six o’clock. I went down and was met by two policemen at our front door. And I went, ‘What’s wrong?’ And Mum said, ‘Your daddy didn’t come home last night.’

“I burst into tears. It was just an automatic thing – Daddy would never have not been home. But the policeman turned around to me and went, ‘What’s she crying for?’ I was a young girl standing there in tears in my pyjamas. But those first policemen that were there were awful. They knew what had happened to him and yet they were still like that. And they were saying, ‘Well, does your daddy not come home often?’”

All these years later, the indignities keep coming. The Browns will meet them head-on, whatever happens.