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Potential key witness 'left face of earth', dissident republican's inquest told

Published 05/05/2016

Belfast Coroners Court was told the witness, his wife and children had not been heard from in seven years
Belfast Coroners Court was told the witness, his wife and children had not been heard from in seven years

A potentially key witness in the inquest of a dissident republican who hanged himself in police custody has vanished, a coroner's court has heard.

The man, allegedly involved in an altercation with John Brady ahead of his arrest in 2009, may also have been recruited as a State agent, it was claimed.

Barrister Conor O'Kane, representing the Brady family, told Belfast Coroners Court: "He (witness), his wife and his children have left the face of the earth and have not been heard from in seven years.

"Where have they gone?

"It is a reasonable assumption that to leave your family, to take children out of school, to disappear is very difficult without very powerful and wealthy people to help you."

Real IRA man John Brady, 40, was found dead at Strand Road police station in Londonderry in October 2009.

The case is shrouded in controversy over allegations that two officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland's (PSNI) C3 unit - formerly known as Special Branch - visited the veteran republican on three separate occasions before his death.

Rumours of C3 involvement have led to speculation that Mr Brady may have been subjected to a bid to turn him into an informer before he hanged himself in a consultation room.

But the Police Ombudsman subsequently examined these claims and found no evidence to support them.

The ombudsman said two intelligence officers did attempt to gain access to Mr Brady but were turned away by custody staff - a finding investigators said was substantiated by CCTV footage.

Mr O'Kane claimed allegations of police cover-up were central to the high profile case, describing Mr Brady as a man of fortitude who had never had any mental health problems.

"The mechanics of the death have been explored thoroughly," the lawyer said.

"What has never been explored by anybody is why was he arrested in the first place?

"Mr Brady hanged himself because he could not face a number of months or years in prison.

"The question is, what caused him to take that view?"

The court heard that Mr Brady was arrested and charged in connection with a fight outside a primary school.

Police failed to properly investigate the allegations of actual bodily harm and did not speak to key witnesses, according to Mr O'Kane.

There are also questions over how C3 officers knew he had been detained, the barrister added.

"C3 officers were at the police station that day," he said. "How did the two C3 officers know?

"Mr Brady was arrested for actual bodily harm - a relatively minor offence but somehow somebody told C3 officers that he was at Strand Road police station."

Claims the potential witness was an informer were dismissed as "wildly speculative" by Philip McAtteer, counsel for the PSNI.

Meanwhile, serious concerns were also expressed over what Mr O'Kane described as a "secret meeting" between the previous coroner in the case Judge Brian Sherrard and representatives of the PSNI last month.

Demanding to know who attended the meeting last month, he said: "It is important for the family that these things are done as much as possible in open."

The court heard Judge Sherrard had viewed a booklet of sensitive documents to assess their potential relevance because his legal representatives did not have adequate security clearance.

There were some heated exchanges between the Brady family barrister and Coroner Joe McCrisken during the brief hearing.

At one point Mr McCrisken threatened to hand over a transcript of the barrister's comments to a higher legal authority, adding: "This is my court and you must respect it. I am an independent judicial officer and I will not have disrespect.

"I do not think you are showing this court and other colleagues the respect you should."

The coroner said the Brady family could expect a full, fair and fearless inquest which he hoped would be listed for hearing this year.

"It is my intention to move this matter forward at pace," said Mr McCrisken.

A further review hearing was provisionally scheduled for June 21.

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