Belfast Telegraph

Ombudsman probe into murder of Gareth O’Connor complete, inquest hears

An inquest into the death dramatically stopped in 2015 after it emerged one of the suspects had received a so-called comfort letter.

Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared near the Irish border in 2003 (Family handout/PA)
Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared near the Irish border in 2003 (Family handout/PA)

By Rebecca Black, PA

The police watchdog has concluded a probe around the death of a man after an inquest was halted when it emerged a suspect had been handed a comfort letter, a coroner has heard.

Gareth Paul O’Connor, 24, was last seen in May 2003 as he travelled to Dundalk Garda Station to sign in accordance with bail conditions after he was charged with membership of the Real IRA.

The father-of-two’s body was recovered from Newry canal two years later.

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A police diving unit lorry parked beside Victoria Dock, Newry Canal where the remains of Gareth Paul O’Connor were found (PA)

His family believe he was killed by the Provisional IRA.

An inquest into his death was dramatically halted in 2015 after it emerged during the proceedings that in 2008 a so-called comfort letter was mistakenly issued to a leading suspect.

That hearing was told that the letter was passed from the Government to Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly, who then passed it to the individual who has been identified as a suspect in the killing of Mr O’Connor.

The on the run letter scheme saw 200 people told they were not wanted for paramilitary crimes committed before the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

The scheme came to light following the collapse of the 2014 trial of John Downey over the 1982 IRA bombing of Hyde Park.

The inquest into Mr O’Connor’s death was then postponed with then Coroner John Leckey stating the matter would have to be investigated further with a view to a criminal prosecution.

On Friday during a series of reviews into outstanding legacy inquests at Belfast Coroner’s Court, it emerged that the Police Ombudsman’s office (PONI) has completed an investigation into the case.

“Our investigation has concluded,” counsel for PONI told Presiding Coroner Siobhan Keegan.

A lawyer acting for the O’Connor family said the inquest “was ready to go” in 2015, before a “completely unforeseen incident stopped it in its tracks”.

He said there are no ongoing civil or criminal proceedings in the case.

The review hearing was also told that the inquest into Mr O’Connor’s death had originally been listed for three days, but additional material has been gathered since then.

Mrs Justice Keegan said: “This case was set up for inquest in 2015 and then there were certain developments and sensitive discovery that led to it not taking place … I am being told that there is no impediment to going ahead due to a criminal investigation which hasn’t produced anything yet.”

Mrs Justice Keegan has been hearing reviews into a number of legacy inquests over the last three weeks, and is due to propose how the outstanding cases will be heard in the coming weeks.

Northern Ireland’s Justice Department plans to release £55 million over six years to deal with outstanding legacy inquests.

A Police Ombudsman spokesman told the PA news agency that the report into Mr O’Connor’s death has not yet been made public.

PA

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