O'Conner inquest start delayed
Police delays in disclosing files linked to the murder of a father-of-two whose body was found dumped in Newry canal could see his inquest postponed by around a year, a coroner has warned.
The probe into the suspected republican killing of Gareth O'Connor was due to go ahead in February, but Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner John Leckey said the latest hold-up - which the PSNI put down to the discovery of a number of additional documents - rendered that start date unrealistic.
A solicitor for the victim's family, accepting the coroner was left with little option but to postpone, branded the latest slip in the PSNI's timetable for disclosure as "depressingly predictable".
At a preliminary hearing in Belfast, Mr Leckey said he would endeavour to prioritise the inquest and make sure it was held as soon as possible, but he stressed his diary was otherwise full for 2014.
The coroner indicated the only way the investigation could proceed next year would be if a different court slot opened up due to a hitch with another scheduled inquest.
"I would be very anxious that this inquest is accorded greatest priority," he said. " But I have to be realistic and it's just not viable to start at the beginning of February."
Mr O'Connor's badly decomposed body was found inside a car at Victoria Lock, Newry, in June 2005.
The 24-year-old, from Knockamell Park, Armagh, disappeared in May 2003 on his way to sign bail at a Dundalk Garda station in the Irish Republic.
He had been charged in the Republic with membership of the dissident republican group the Real IRA the previous year.
His family allege he was murdered by the Provisional IRA - a claim the group denied at the time of his disappearance.
A previous preliminary hearing was told that his killers may have suspected him of being a police informant.
Today, lawyer Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said the delay in disclosing documentation was due to the discovery of a new batch of files related to the death.
The potential relevance of the papers, which were stored in Gough barracks in Armagh, only became apparent after references to them were found while security vetting other files linked to the murder, Mr Robinson explained.
He said the public-interest immunity (PII) exercise being carried out on the original files would now have to be done on the new documents.
The lawyer said that should be completed by mid to late January.
"The timetable has slipped but great efforts are being made to make sure this matter is progressed," said Mr Robinson.
Mr Leckey, noting that another hearing would be required to consider the outcome of the PII process, said it would not be realistic to commence hearing evidence at the start of February as planned.
The coroner urged the PSNI to conduct a full inventory of its documents to limit the chance of such a situation developing again.
"If the police had an inventory the likelihood of something emerging by chance would be much, much reduced," he said.
Mr Robinson replied: "I can see your point and I will take instructions on that."
Paul Dougan, representing the O'Connor family, expressed frustration at the development.
He acknowledged the discovery of new files would necessitate further security checks but said it had happened in the context of long running delays in disclosing the original files.
"I just make the point on behalf of the family, there's absolutely no adherence it would seem to timescale here," he said.
The lawyer added: "It is just depressingly predictable."
In a separate development, Mr Robinson said a "legislative issue" had emerged in connection with some of the papers related to the case.
Characterising it as a "delicate matter", the lawyer said he would outline details in a letter to the coroner.
But he added: "It relates to a small number of documents. It should not be a matter that impedes progress of the inquest itself."
Responding to Mr Leckey's request that he wanted to be in a position to deal with the letter before the Christmas break, Mr Robinson pledged to send it within seven days.