Four men cleared as PSNI’s use of informer queried

Four County Tyrone men set up for arrest by a PSNI police informer have been acquitted by Belfast Crown Court judge Justice Girvan.

Girvan queried the manner in which missing man Gareth O’Connor, who he acknowledged was in contact the police, was used by the Crown forces to facilitate the arrests.

Girvan had already cleared the men of membership of the breakway ‘Real IRA’ after ruling it was not an illegal organisation under current legislation. [In a separate development, that ruling was overturned today by the Court of Appeal in Belfast.]

Donald Mullan, Sean Dillon and Kevin Murphy were cleared by Girvan in a judgement which was highly critical of the PSNI (formerly RUC). A fourth, Brendan O’Connor, remains in custody.

Speaking outside Belfast Crown Court one of the four Tyrone men cleared said they were “just relieved” at the verdict. Kevin Murphy said: “Over the four and a half week trial and the fight that was put up on our behalf, I think the judgement was inevitable...”

“There were four of us charged 28 months ago and Brendan O’Connor is still in custody. We have clearly seen that the RUC hasn’t changed one bit - they will manipulate things to get what they want,” he said.

A legal representative said it had taken “two and a half years for these men to find justice”.

“These men continually protested their innocence. They were all refused bail and had to fight a very long and hard case before clearing their names.

“The court reached the right decision - it is the only decision the court could have reached.”

The men said they had been lured to a field by Mr O’Connor, who vanished when they were surrounded by undercover troops and specialist police. The men were charged with possession of an RPG grenade launcher, which was hidden in the field.

However, Justice Girvan insisted the men’s acquittal did not amount to a finding that “police colluded with Gareth O’Connor or anybody else to plant the rocket launcher and my judgement should not be interpreted as so finding or so implying.”

But he said the situation regarding Mr O’Connor, who is missing and presumed dead, was “unanswered”.

“The role of Gareth O’Connor,” he said, “in this matter remains enigmatic as an informer playing an active role in liaison with the police.”

And he added: “There are many unanswered questions as to his involvement and as to the pressures and inducement that may have been exerted on him to bring about the capturing of the defendants.”

With the PSNI increasingly the focus of talks in the political process, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy called for PSNI chief Hugh Orde to comment on the case.

“Hugh Orde has in the past been very vocal on the O’Connor case. Before this trial began and it emerged that Mr. O’Connor was in his employment, Hugh Orde accused the IRA of being involved in the abduction. Since allegations about Mr O’Connor appeared in court, Mr Orde has gone silent on this matter.

“This situation cannot be allowed to continue. It is time for Hugh Orde to come clean. Firstly he must give the O’Connor family all of the information he has about the case and significantly he must explain why his Special Branch was deliberately trying to set people up for arrest and wrongful conviction.

“ These issues go to the very heart of the policing issue and the fact that the vast majority of nationalists in the six counties have election after election rejected the PSNI as an acceptable policing service. Hugh Orde can no longer hide from the fundamental issue of continuing illegal activity being carried out by the Special Branch.”

* Meanwhile, an appeal court has insisted that it was “inconceivable” that the “Real IRA” was not a banned group, even though it is not specifically mentioned under the title in legislation.

“In our judgment it is inconceivable that the legislature did not intend that the ‘Real IRA’ should be proscribed..,” the judges recorded, overturning Girvans’s finding on the matter.

Today’s judgment accepted an argument that the law used “Irish Republican Army” as a generic term which took in both the mainstream group and its dissident offshoots.

“Given the manner in which the various groupings of the IRA have been proscribed historically, we consider that it should have been apparent to any member of the ‘Real IRA’ that he was guilty of an offence,” the judges said.

The four Tyrone men are unaffected by today’s ruling because the appeal was brought on the point of law rather than their acquittals.

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