The main suspect in the murder of republican Gareth O’Connor has still not been questioned almost thirteen years after his death it has emerged. The man in question has also received an ‘OTR letter’ from the PSNI which could allow him to permanently evade prosecution for the murder.
A barrister for the Police Service of Northern Ireland told a coroners court hearing in Belfast’s Laganside Court this week that there was still “no timescale” for knowing if or when an interview may take place with the suspect.
Mr O’Connor disappeared near the border in 2003 on his way to sign bail on a charge of membership of the breakaway ‘Real IRA’. His body was found two years later in a car pulled from the Newry canal. His family believe he was killed by the Provisional IRA.
A preliminary hearing at Belfast’s Laganside Court was told that Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly met the victim’s family on two occasions and offered assurances that the PIRA was not involved in the killing.
An inquest for Mr O’Connor was dramatically halted last year when it emerged the murder suspect has been issued with a so-called “on the run letter” (OTR letter)
Mr Kelly described himself as the “conduit” for the document which states that the suspect, who lives in the 26 Counties, is no longer wanted. The inquest was stopped as it appeared a prosecution was no longer possible.
Around 200 ‘letters of comfort’ were issued to individuals under the scheme, with Kelly acting as the go-between in many of the cases.
The British government has declared it will no longer stand over the letters after the high profile prosecution of Donegal man John Downey dramatically collapsed two years ago due to the perceived ‘abuse of process’ represented by his possession of an OTR letter.
Mr Kelly has not yet been formally approached by the Coroner’s Service in the case but has said he does not wish to be involved in the proceedings. Gerry McAlinden, counsel for the Coroners Service, said: “Mr Kelly’s solicitor wrote to the Coroners Service after the previous hearing and expressed great displeasure at his name being mentioned in the context of the inquest. He was frankly quite annoyed that he had been dragged into this at this stage.”
In the murder of another republican in 2008, eight PSNI members were “disciplined” over failures to properly investigate the death, but no other action has yet been taken.
Gerard Hampson’s naked body was washed up on the shores of Lough Neagh near Toome in January 2008 several weeks after he went missing.
The disciplinary action was recommended after the 53-year-old’s family complained to the Police Ombudsman.
Mr Hampson, from Derry, was a former republican prisoner who served a sentence for IRA actions and was connected to the 32-County Sovereignty Movement. A brother in law of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Marvin Canning, was charged in connection with the episode but the prosecution was later dropped.
The Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, has also asked the PSNI to commission an external police force to review whether the case should be reinvestigated. However, it emerged that suggestion has not been acted on.
The ombudsman found that the PSNI investigation “lacked focus, direction and attention to detail.”
He had originally recommended that ten PSNI members be disciplined but this has only happened in the case of eight with the action taken against six down-graded from written warnings to advice and guidance.
Two others received the recommended sanction - a superintendent’s written warning - while another two received “managerial discussions”.
The ombudsman has also called on the PSNI to apologise to the Hampson family but Mr Hampson’s son Denis said this never happened.
“We are deeply disappointed at the response of the PSNI to the PONI report,” he said.
“An external review, as recommended, has not been held. The officers concerned got a slap on the wrist and we have yet to receive an apology.”