Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly should face police probe over OTR letter role, says father of murder victim

By Deborah McAleese

The father of a murder victim has demanded that police investigate Gerry Kelly following the collapse of an inquest into his son's death.

A coroner's inquiry into the IRA murder of Gareth O'Connor, who disappeared in May 2003, was dramatically halted yesterday after it emerged that the chief suspect in the case was incorrectly given one of the Government's "on-the-run" letters that grant IRA fugitives immunity from prosecution.

The suspect's letter was delivered to him in 2008 by Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly.

Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner John Leckey described Mr Kelly's role in the case as a "matter of public concern".

However, Mr Kelly last night insisted he did not know the identity of the murder suspect.

He also said there was nothing he could have done to help the O'Connor family.

Mr O'Connor's father Mark, who believes the IRA murdered his son, told the Belfast Telegraph that following his son's disappearance Mr Kelly had promised to help him get justice. "Whenever my son went missing I phoned Sinn Fein and asked Adams to come out. He said he was too busy so he sent Kelly down," he said.

"He sat in our house and promised he would help us. We gathered up all the information. I told him at the time I suspected this person. He took notes and said he would be back. He came back with nothing," Mr O'Connor said.

He added: "I also asked Conor Murphy to take my case to the European Commission. He said it would not do any good. I'm now asking him publicly to do that. I want Sinn Fein investigated."

However, Mr Kelly insisted there was nothing he could have done.

"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.

Mr Kelly added: "Clearly they (Mr O'Connor's family) were very distraught, their young son, who was a young man, had disappeared and I had sympathy for them, but there was nothing I could do to help them.

"That is the case and has remained the case ever since.

"I understand they are going through a trauma, but there was nothing I could do."

Gareth O'Connor was 24 when he disappeared in May 2003. 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 Real IRA. He never got there.

Two years later a car containing his body was dragged from Newry Canal.

The PSNI apologised to the O'Connor family through the Coroner's Court yesterday for mistakenly issuing the on-the-run letter.

Mr O'Connor said he did not accept the PSNI's apology and has demanded the Police Ombudsman launch an investigation into the organisation's handling of the case.

"I can't trust anyone, the police, the politicians, no one," he said.

"Why did the PSNI give this letter out. Who did it? Why did they do it? Were they returning a favour back to the IRA? What is really going on in politics and policing here?"

Mr O'Connor added: "I feel angry, upset and betrayed. We waited 12 years for this inquest only to be told this at the last minute. The PSNI kept putting back the inquest. Why?

"The hurt of losing my son has never gone away. Nobody wants to help uncover the truth. We know who did this. The PSNI know who did this. Why wait 12 years to interview him?

"What I want out of this is a conviction. There was evidence that came up (yesterday) that we were not aware of but that we should have been aware of 10 years ago had the PSNI not hidden it from us."

The suspect was issued the letter on October 22, 2008. The document stated that the then Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward had been informed by then Attorney General Baroness Scotland that the individual was not being actively sought by the authorities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK.

In 2010 Mr Woodward said in an interview that any idea of pardons was "complete nonsense".

The DUP, UUP and SDLP have all called for an explanation from Mr Kelly and Sinn Fein.

DUP MP Ian Paisley said that if there was any evidence "of efforts by Gerry Kelly or anyone else to assist a suspect evade justice then this must also be fully considered by police".

Under the OTR plan, more than 200 people were told they were no longer wanted for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The scheme was made public when the trial of John Downey collapsed. He was a suspect in the 1982 IRA Hyde Park bombing.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs earlier this month that the scheme for fugitive IRA members "was absolutely critical" to the peace process and at certain points "became fundamental to it".

How the controversy unfolded

MAY 2000: Then Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams that if he provided details of those on the run, these would be examined by the Attorney General in consultation with the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, "with a view to giving a response within a month if at all possible".

MAY 2003: Proposals by the British and Irish governments about dealing with OTRs did not receive enough support to be implemented.

DECEMBER 2006: In a secret letter from Tony Blair to Gerry Adams, he outlined mechanisms to resolve outstanding OTR cases.

FEBRUARY 2007: The PSNI began a review of people regarded as "wanted" in connection with terrorist-related offences before the Good Friday Agreement, and what basis, if any, they had to seek arrests.

FEBRUARY 2014: Details of the scheme became known when a case against a suspected IRA bomber collapsed at the Old Bailey.

JULY 2014: In her report into the OTR scheme, Lady Justice Hallett said the letters were not an amnesty and the scheme had been lawful. However, she found "significant systemic failures" in how it operated, and the letter to Mr Downey was the result of a "catastrophic mistake" by the PSNI.

JANUARY 2015: Tony Blair defends the scheme claiming it probably prevented peace process from collapsing.

JANUARY 2015: The inquest of murdered Gareth O'Connor halted after it emerged a suspect had been wrongly issued with a letter assuring him he was not being sought.

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