Irish Republican News · January 31, 2015
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
OTR letter delivered to suspect in 2003 killing


The suspension of the inquest into the death of Armagh man Gareth O’Connor in 2003 caused shockwaves on Monday after it was claimed that a former Provisional IRA Volunteer accused of involvement received an ‘On the Run’ (OTR) letter, potentially giving him immunity from questioning on the killing.

The inquest has now been postponed indefinitely, with the coroner telling Mr O’Connor’s family that the matter will now have to be investigated further.

O’Connor (pictured) was 24 when he disappeared in May 2003 at what was a difficult time for the peace process. He had been on his way to Dundalk Garda Station to sign as part of his bail conditions after being charged with membership of the breakaway Real IRA. He never got there. Two years later, a car containing his body was dragged from Newry Canal.

At the time, O’Connor had accumulated a range of enemies, and Sinn Fein has previously suggested the ‘peace time’ murder must have been carried out by either the breakaway Real IRA or the PSNI Special Branch police.

But his family have always believed he was killed by the mainstream Provisional IRA.

Mr O’Connor’s father Mark had contacted senior Sinn Fein figure Gerry Kelly in the days after his son’s disappearance. Kelly assured him the Provisional IRA was not involved, an assurance he never accepted.

A lawyer for the coroner told the court on Monday that, five years later, when the OTR letter was issued to the person suspected of being involved in the murder, Mr Kelly was the conduit.

“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.

Under the controversial scheme to deal with the issue of former IRA Volunteers ‘on the run’ from potential prosecutions arising from the conflict in the Six Counties, Kelly requested and received letters assuring those named that no prosecution would be taken. The details of the scheme, intended only for supporters of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, emerged when the trial collapsed of Donegal man John Downey last year.

In the Downey case, the PSNI said it has issued an ‘On the Run’ letter “by mistake”, a claim dismissed by nationalists and unionists alike. However, the same claim of a letter being issued “by mistake” was made to the O’Connor inquest.

An unusual point is that the wording of the letter, issued by the PSNI in 2008, covers the period when the killing took place. The PSNI told the inquest that those who issued it were not aware the OTR scheme was intended only for events taking place before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Following an outcry by unionists last year and amid ongoing hearings on the scheme by a Westminster parliamentary committee, the British government has repeatedly said that it will not ‘stand over’ the OTR letters. The legal status of all such letters is now uncertain.

This was the context in which the coroner said he was forced to halt the inquest at Armagh Court on Monday, to consider whether a prosecution is now possible in light of the new British policy.

The O’Connor family’s lawyer, Paul Dougan, said the O’Connor family had been preparing itself for a painful inquest and was left in shock at the sudden developments. He said information regarding the letter had been known to the authorities for over six months.

“It was known both to the NIO [the British government’s Northern Ireland Office] who issued this letter and it was known to the police,” he said. “And yet the coroner only became aware of it by lunchtime on Friday and the family only became aware of it through myself late in Friday evening. That to me is the most alarming aspect of these developments today.”

He said he fully understood why the inquest could not go ahead given the state of the 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.

Unionists said it raised questions about Mr Kelly’s role in the case.

“It fuels a perception of a two-tier system of justice in operation whereby those in the know with Sinn Fein have been able to get their hands on letters of comfort which in some cases have had the effect of

DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr said there should be an investigation into the efforts by Sinn Fein “to assist a suspect evade justice”.

SDLP Assembly member for Newry and Armagh Dominic Bradley also demanded answers from the Sinn Fein politician.

“Mr Kelly said that he had no information and yet it emerges today that he delivered an OTR letter to the chief murder suspect,” he said.

“Gerry Kelly was not a postman for NIO, the existence of this letter and his delivery of it points strongly to IRA involvement in the murder.

“Gerry Kelly must now come forward and reveal all he knows about this horrendous case.”

Gareth O’Connor’s father Mark said Kelly should resign. He also appealed for Sinn Fein members to “hand over what information they have in relation to Gareth’s murder”.

“He is not a credible politician. He is not a credible human being,” he said.

Responding, Mr Kelly said on Monday evening that the family of Gareth O’Connor deserve “access to truth”. He said his involvement in the letters was very limited.

“If someone approached Sinn Fein and asked Sinn Fein to enquire if they were wanted for questioning by the PSI, I would take four pieces of information from them; their full name, date of birth, what area of the North they had lived in and when they left the jurisdiction.”

Mr Kelly said that no other information was sought by or given to him, and the process after that “belonged to the NIO and the British government”.

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