Gerry Kelly ‘did not know’ letter of comfort was for suspect

PSNI apologises for allowing on-the-run letter for man suspected of Gareth O’Connor murder

 Sinn Féin politician Gerry Kelly has insisted he had no knowledge a republican who received an “on the run” letter from him was a murder  suspect. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Sinn Féin politician Gerry Kelly has insisted he had no knowledge a republican who received an “on the run” letter from him was a murder suspect. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

 

Senior Sinn Féin politician Gerry Kelly has insisted he had no knowledge that a republican who received an “on the run” letter from him was a leading suspect in the 2003 murder of Gareth O’Connor.

North Belfast Assembly member Mr Kelly made his comments after an inquest in Armagh on Monday heard how a man who was viewed as a suspect in Mr O’Connor’s abduction and murder was mistakenly issued with a letter assuring him he was not wanted by the police for any alleged paramilitary offences.

At the time the O’Connor family blamed the Provisional IRA for 24-year-old Mr O’Connor’s disappearance.

Believed IRA

The inquest was told Gerry Kelly informed the family at the time he believed the IRA when it said it was not responsible for Mr O’Connor’s disappearance.

The inquest also heard that in 2008 Mr Kelly was the conduit for an on-the-run (OTR) letter issued to a suspect in Mr O’Connor’s killing assuring him he was not wanted for any offences.

The inquest heard that not only should the suspect not have received this letter of comfort, but that the OTR letter was issued 10 years after the April 1998 Belfast Agreement - the cut-off time for the scheme.

Apology issued

The PSNI on Monday apologised to the O’Connor family. The inquest was postponed to allow further police investigation of Mr O’Connor’s murder.

Gerry McAlinden QC, acting on behalf of coroner John Leckey, said Mr Kelly was the conduit for the OTR letter being issued to the suspect.

“That’s a matter of public concern and it’s something that will have to be looked at in due course in terms of the investigation of this matter,” he said.

Mr Kelly repeated on Monday night that he did not believe the IRA was involved in Mr O’Connor’s murder. He insisted that in issuing the OTR letter to the suspect, he had no idea the individual was classified as a suspect.

He said he was the conduit between the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) who operated the scheme and most of the 200 republicans who received the letters assuring them they were not wanted by the police for paramilitary offences.

“There was never any discussion about what they might be on the run for or not on the run for,” he said.

“Let me make it very clear that I don’t know and there is no name for a recipient, so I don’t know who the letter is to or what it is about,” he said. “I was not involved in either researching or investigating any of the people whose names I have put forward.

‘Questions asked’

“Questions are being asked of me. Questions need to be asked of the NIO and they need to be asked of the police,” Mr Kelly added.

“If there were any mistakes made in this case, and no-one knows who the recipient is - there was no name - then they have to answer those questions. It is not up to me to answer those questions.”

The inquest has now been postponed to allow further criminal investigation of the murder of Mr O’Connor, who went missing in May 2003 in south Armagh while he was on his way to sign in Dundalk Garda station as part of bail conditions for alleged membership of the dissident Real IRA.

His body was recovered two years later from a car submerged in Newry Canal.

Paul Dougan, solicitor for the O’Connor family, acknowledged that the inquest could not go ahead at present, but queried why it took so long for this information to emerge when the PSNI should have been in possession of it since last summer as a result of Lady Justice Hallett’s report into the OTR controversy.

That controversy broke early last year when an OTR letter which was mistakenly issued to John Downey, a suspect in the IRA 1982 Hyde Park bombing which killed four British soldiers, resulted in the collapse of his trial in London.

Mr Dougan said the timing of this development had caused “anguish, anger and distress” to Mr O’Connor’s family.