Derry men wrongfully accused of murder get five-figure settlement

Four who were on the run for nearly 20 years were cleared of all charges by judge in 1998

The Derry Four: Michael Toner, Gerard Kelly, Gerry McGowan and Stephen Crumlish

The Derry Four: Michael Toner, Gerard Kelly, Gerry McGowan and Stephen Crumlish


Four Derry men who were wrongfully accused of murder and were on the run for almost 20 years have each been awarded a five-figure sum in an out-of-court settlement against Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable.

The so-called “Derry Four” – Stephen Crumlish, Gerry McGowan, Gerard Kelly and Michael Toner – took a civil case against the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2000.

“We’ve been fighting for 40 years,” said Gerry McGowan, “and they’ve paid substantial damages. Whether they acknowledge guilt or not, the fact that they’ve paid the compensation is a vindication.”

The Derry four’s solicitor, Patricia Coyle, told a press conference in the city that the settlement came with “no acceptance of liability on the part of the police”.

“The payment of a significant sum of compensation to each of these gentleman by the Chief Constable is a final vindication and correction of the public record,” she said.

The four men were all aged 17-18 when they were arrested in Derry in February 1979 in connection with the murder of a soldier, Lieut Stephen Kirby, in the city earlier that month.

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

One of their number, Gerry McGowan, was a promising footballer who had signed a professional contract with Leicester City.

“For the next 20 years they lived their lives under the shadow of the most grave false allegation, with active bench warrants from a court in Belfast hanging over their heads,” said Ms Coyle.

Cleared by judge

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

In 2000 the four issued writs in the High Court in Belfast against the North’s Chief Constable for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, trespass to the person, misconduct in public office and malicious prosecution.

“Finally it has come to an end now after 40 years,” said an emotional Michael Toner. “Although it has taken us 40 years, nothing was going to stop us from getting the truth. We can safely put it to bed. It’s over.”

“We’re 50s, nearly 60 now,” said Gerard Kelly. “Sometimes you look back and you say where did your life go, we had no teenage years, we had no fun, we didn’t enjoy life.

“Twenty years of being on the run was devastating, especially when we lost loved ones. I lost three members of my family and couldn’t attend any of the funerals.

“This is for them, for the loved ones who aren’t here today.”

Gerry McGowan said: “My wife and two children, who are now 21 and 24, they’ve lived with this as well. They’ve lived with me making trips up to Derry and talking about what happened to me.

“It’s about time I gave them a rest as well and just move on and enjoy whatever time we have left.”

Police statement

In a statement PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Clarke acknowledged there had been “significant shortcomings” in the treatment of the men involved in this case.

“We recognise the distress that this has caused them,” he said. “This is reflected in the settlement provisions.

“Policing has developed greatly since these incidents took place, as have our policies and procedures for dealing with detained persons.

“Detainees have a range of protections afforded by the Police and Criminal Evidence (NI) Order and Human Rights legislation.

“The PSNI has strict human rights-compliant policies and procedures in place to ensure that its custody facilities and all investigative processes comply with the highest possible standards,” he said.