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Kelly urged to explain letters role


Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly

Gareth O'Connor, who disappeared near the Irish border in 2003 on his way to sign bail on a charge of Real IRA membership

Gareth O'Connor, who disappeared near the Irish border in 2003 on his way to sign bail on a charge of Real IRA membership

Gareth O'Connor was found dead in Newry canal in June 2005

Gareth O'Connor was found dead in Newry canal in June 2005

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly

A leading Sinn Fein politician who passed a wrongly-issued Government comfort letter to a suspect in an unsolved murder case has denied knowing his identity.

Gerry Kelly has faced intense calls to explain his role in the Gareth O'Connor case after an inquest into the Co Armagh father-of-two's killing in 2003 was dramatically halted this morning when it emerged the suspect was in receipt of one of the so-called "on the run" letters assuring him he was not being sought by the authorities.

The inquest was stopped to enable a renewed police investigation into the individual to proceed without fear of prejudice.

Prior to the adjournment, the coroner's court sitting in Armagh court heard the letter was sent in 2008 to Mr Kelly who then acted as a "conduit" and passed it to the suspect.

The letter was issued five years after Mr O'Connor's father claimed Mr Kelly had assured him the IRA was not involved in the crime and that he would tell him if he was made aware of any development.

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

The court heard the letter should never have been issued by the Northern Ireland Office, as the controversial Government scheme to deal with on-the-run republicans who were not being actively sought by police only applied to incidents that happened before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Reacting to the development, Mr Kelly, a North Belfast Assembly member, stressed he was the go-between for many who passed through the administrative scheme and he did not know the individual circumstances of each case.

"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.

"I was not involved in either researching or investigating any of the people whose names I have put forward."

Mr O'Connor, 24, disappeared near the Irish border in 2003 on his way to sign bail on a charge of Real IRA membership. His body was found two years later in a car in Newry canal. No-one has ever been convicted in relation to his death.

His family allege he was murdered by the Provisional IRA - a claim the organisation denied at the time he vanished.

It emerged in court that the suspect is the unnamed individual flagged up last year in a Government-commissioned review of the letters scheme as having been wrongly issued one of the assurances due to the fact that police were not aware the process was confined to offences pre-1998.

The OTR scheme came to public prominence last year when the prosecution of a man for the murder of four soldiers in an IRA bombing in Hyde Park in 1982 was halted when it emerged he received one of the letters in error when he was in fact wanted by the Metropolitan Police.

Co Donegal man John Downey, 63, who denied involvement in the bomb, walked free from the Old Bailey when the judge ruled that his arrest had been an abuse of process.

Around 200 letters were issued to individuals under the Government scheme, with Sinn Fein acting as the conduit in many of the cases.

Last year a review into the process ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron and conducted by Lady Justice Heather Hallett identified other instances where errors may have been made.

The suspect in the O'Connor case has now been revealed as one of those cases.

Mr Leckey told the court he was only made aware of the development by the police on Friday afternoon, only days before the long-delayed inquest was due to start today.

A lawyer for the PSNI today apologised to Mr O'Connor's family for the timing of the dramatic disclosure.

Counsel for the coroner, Gerry McAlinden QC outlined Mr Kelly's involvement in the case.

He said Mr O'Connor's father Mark had contacted the Sinn Fein MLA in the days after his son's disappearance. In a statement made to police, Mr O'Connor claimed that after two attempts to contact Mr Kelly at his office, the politician phoned him back.

At the time Mr Kelly had made public statements stating he believed the IRA's insistence that it was not involved in abducting Mr O'Connor.

Mr O'Connor claimed that during the phone call he put it to Mr Kelly that the IRA was involved but said the North Belfast MLA said he stood by his statements.

Mr McAlinden said at the close of the call Mr O'Connor claimed the Sinn Fein representative assured him he would call him back if he heard anything more about the case.

"He never called back," said the lawyer.

Mr McAlinden told the court 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.

Mr Kelly tonight reiterated his belief that the IRA was not involved.

"It is now public knowledge that my name was on most of these OTR letters as a conduit for Sinn Fein," he added.

"The process is very simple, if someone approached Sinn Fein and said 'I want to find out if I am wanted or if the police are looking for me' I would take four pieces of information off them -- only four, that was always the case -- their full name; their date of birth; where or what are in the north that they lived in and when roughly they left the jurisdiction.

"That was the only pieces of information I got. There was never any discussion about what they might be on the run for or not on the run for, etc. That was passed on to the NIO (Northern Ireland Office). The process after that belonged entirely to the NIO on police services."

He also said there was nothing he could do to help the O'Connor family in the weeks after Mr O'Connor's disappearance.

"I don't know anything about it," he added. "Clearly they 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."

He claimed the coroner had to explain the comments that his role was a "matter of public concern".

He added: "Questions are being asked of me. Questions need to be asked of the NIO and they need to be asked of the police. If there were any mistakes made in this case, and no-one knows who the recipient is - there was no name - then they have to answer those questions. It is not up to me to answer those questions."

Mr O'Connor's parents sat with other family members in the public gallery of the Armagh courthouse as the legal proceedings unfolded this morning.

Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said the organisation apologised unreservedly for the "upset and distress" the timing of the disclosure may have caused the O'Connor family, who were preparing to sit through a week-long inquest.

"This should not have happened," he said.

The lawyer explained that an error in the PSNI's information handling systems had resulted in the unit that deals with disclosing documents to inquests not becoming aware until late last week that the OTR error flagged up in the Hallett review related to a suspect in the O'Connor case.

The PSNI is currently re-assessing the evidence in all the OTR cases, but Mr Robinson told Mr Leckey that the O'Connor case was being prioritised.

Solicitor for the O'Connor family, Paul Dougan, said he fully understood why the inquest could not go ahead given the state of the police 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.

He said questions remained as to why the information had only been disclosed at the last minute when the PSNI had been in possession of the Hallett report since last summer.

Turning to Mr O'Connor's parents, Mr Leckey said criminal proceedings could achieve more than an inquest.

"I'm sure your hope is, and certainly mine is, that further investigation by the PSNI might arrive at a situation that someone can be charged in connection with the death of your son," he said.

Adjourning proceedings, Mr Leckey asked for an update on the investigation from police in two months' time.

Outside court, Mr Dougan said it was his understanding that the suspect has never been interviewed by detectives in relation to the O'Connor case.

He said the revelations that had emerged in recent days had hit the family like a "bolt from the blue".

"Some quite startling revelations have emerged today, in particular the existence of an on-the-run letter, so-called, and the reasons why the existence of that letter has prevented the inquest starting this morning," he said.

Mr O'Connor's relatives did not make any public statement as they left court.