Police forced false confessions from ‘Derry Four’, watchdog finds

North’s Police Ombudsman report ‘final piece of the jigsaw’ in 43-year pursuit of justice

Police “coercion” and “oppression” forced four teenagers arrested in Derry in 1979 to falsely confess to the murder of a British soldier, the North’s Police Ombudsman has found.

In a report published on Friday, Marie Anderson said the so-called “Derry Four” had been treated “unfairly” and factors including the “coercive” atmosphere during police interviews led them to make “‘confessional’ statements which were not voluntary.”

She concluded their complaints about “mental ill-treatment, detention, and interviewing by police at Strand Road RUC Station” were “legitimate and justified” and they had not been given access to legal advice.

One of the Derry Four, Gerard Kelly, told The Irish Times they felt vindicated by the Police Ombudsman’s ruling.

“It’s been a long road but we’ve always stated this was what happened and it feels good to have that upheld,” he said.

“Even when we were acquitted and we received [compensation] money from the PSNI there was still that doubt in some people’s minds, so now the Police Ombudsman has come out and said it, hopefully that will be it put to bed.”

Another of the men, Gerry McGowan, said it was “the final piece of the jigsaw in the 43-year journey in the pursuit of justice”.

Stephen Crumlish, Gerry McGowan, Gerard Kelly and Michael Toner were all aged between 17 and 18 years old when they were arrested in February 1979 in connection with the murder of a soldier, Lieut Stephen Kirby, in Derry.

Forced to sign false confessions, they fled south of the Border during their trial and have lived there ever since.

In 1998 a Belfast judge cleared the four men of all charges against them.

In 2000 they took a civil case against the PSNI Chief Constable in relation to the ill-treatment and abuse they said police officers had subjected them to during their detention, and in 2019 each was awarded a five-figure sum in an out-of-court settlement.

In 2003 they made complaints to the Police Ombudsman’s Office which included the allegation that they had been subjected to mental and physical abuse during their time in custody, forced to sign false confessions and denied access to legal representation.

Ms Anderson concluded that a number of factors had a “profound effect on the coercive atmosphere generated during the interviews and the subsequent securing of ‘confessional’ statements.

“Taken together, the prolonged and repeated nature of the interviewing, the immature ages of the four young men, their inexperience with law enforcement, and the absence of access to legal advice or other support made them susceptible to compliance with those in authority.

“I am of the view that these factors had the cumulative effect of creating an oppressive and fearful environment in which they made ‘confessional’ statements.

“It is my view that the ‘confessional’ statements were not obtained fairly, but by coercion and/or oppression.”

The Police Ombudsman said she was unable to investigate the allegations of physical abuse as these had previously been investigated by the RUC and the Director of Public Prosecutions had directed none of the 14 officers should be prosecuted.

She was unable to conclude on a number of other allegations due to “conflicting evidence”.

This included that they had been threatened by police and told that members of their families would come to harm if they did not sign confessions.

“Ten police officers interviewed in relation to these allegations denied any wrongdoing, and other members of staff at Strand Road custody suite stated that they had not seen any mistreatment, and would have reported it if they had,” Ms Anderson said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times