Inquest of father of two halted in ‘On The Runs’ letter row
Role of Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly a ‘matter of public concern’
In 2008 a so-called “on the run” letter was passed from the Government to Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly (pictured) who then passed it on.
The inquest of a murdered father of two in Northern Ireland has been halted after it emerged that a suspect has been wrongly issued with a Government comfort letter assuring him he was not being sought by the authorities.
Armagh court heard that in 2008 the so-called “On The Runs” letter was passed from the Government to Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly who then passed it to the individual who has been identified as a suspect in the 2003 killing of Co Armagh man Gareth O’Connor.
The court was told this happened five years after Mr O’Connor’s father claimed Mr Kelly had assured him the IRA was not involved in the crime and that he would tell him if he was made aware of any development.
Addressing the court, a lawyer for Northern Ireland’s senior coroner John Leckey described Mr Kelly’s role as a “matter of public concern”.
With the Government having announced it will no longer stand over the on the run letters, the inquest was halted to allow police to assess whether a prosecution is now possible in the case.
Mr O’Connor (24) disappeared near the Border in 2003 on his way to sign bail on a charge of Real IRA membership. His body was found two years later in a car in Newry canal. No one has ever been convicted in relation to his death.
His family allege he was murdered by the Provisional IRA – a claim the organisation denied at the time he vanished.
It emerged in court that the suspect is the unnamed individual flagged up last year in a Government-commissioned review of the controversial letters scheme as having been wrongly issued one of the assurances due to the fact that police were not aware the process was confined to offences committed before the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
The ‘On The Runs’ scheme came to public prominence last year when the prosecution of a man for the murder of four soldiers in an IRA bombing in Hyde Park in 1982 was halted when it emerged he received one of the letters in error when he was in fact wanted by the Metropolitan Police.
John Downey (63), who denied involvement in the bomb, walked free from the Old Bailey when the judge ruled that his arrest had been an abuse of process.
Around 200 letters were issued to individuals under the Government scheme, with Sinn Féin acting as the conduit in many of the cases.
Last year a review into the process, ordered by British Prime Minister David Cameron, identified other instances where errors may have been made.
The suspect in the O’Connor case has now been revealed as one of those cases.
Mr Leckey told the court he was only made aware of the development by the police on Friday afternoon, only days before the long-delayed inquest was due to start today.
A lawyer for the PSNI has apologised to Mr O’Connor’s family for the timing of the dramatic disclosure.
Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said the organisation apologised unreservedly for the “upset and distress” the timing of the disclosure may have caused the O’Connor family, who were preparing to sit through a week-long inquest.
“This should not have happened,” he said.
The lawyer explained an error in the PSNI’s information handling systems had resulted in the unit that deals with disclosing documents to inquests not becoming aware until late last week that the OTR error flagged up in the Hallett review related to a suspect in the O’Connor case.
The PSNI is currently re-assessing the evidence in all the OTR cases, but Mr Robinson told Mr Leckey that the O’Connor case was being prioritised.
“This is a live case,” he added.
Solicitor for the O’Connor family, Paul Dougan, said he fully understood why the inquest could not go ahead given the state of the police investigation.
But he said the timing had caused “anguish, anger and distress” to Mr O’Connor’s relatives, noting that they had waited 12 years for an inquest.
“They literally can’t believe what is happening and what has happened in this case,” he added.
He said questions remained as to why the information had only been disclosed at the last minute when the PSNI had been in possession of the Hallett report since last summer.
Turning to Mr O’Connor’s parents, Mr Leckey said criminal proceedings could achieve more than an inquest.
“I’m sure your hope is, and certainly mine is, that further investigation by the PSNI might arrive at a situation that someone can be charged in connection with the death of your son,” he said.
Adjourning proceedings, Mr Leckey asked for an update on the investigation from police in two months’ time.
Outside court, Mr Dougan said it was his understanding that the suspect has never been interviewed by detectives in relation to the O’Connor case.
He said the revelations that had emerged in recent days had hit the family like a “bolt from the blue”.
“Some quite startling revelations have emerged today, in particular the existence of an on-the-run letter, so-called, and the reasons why the existence of that letter has prevented the inquest starting this morning,” he said.
Mr O’Connor’s relatives did not make any public statement as they left court. PA