Belfast Telegraph

Ten years after GP Deirdre was last seen alive her family are no closer to learning what happened

By Leona O'Neill

When GP Deirdre O'Flaherty's BMW was found in the car park of an isolated Donegal beach 10 years ago, it sparked a massive air and sea search that lasted three weeks.

No trace was found of the 46-year-old, who had been staying at Kinnego Bay with her husband Ken and their children Johnny, who was 16; Thomas, then 15; and Natalie, who was just seven at the time.

After several days, the case dropped out of the headlines. Time moved on.

Now, a decade later, her disappearance has suddenly come back into the spotlight.

On Tuesday, searches began around 60 miles away, near Rathmullan, a small seaside village on the Fanad Peninsula in Co Donegal, ending yesterday with nothing further being found.

The operation is said to have been prompted by a letter with information about the possibility of skeletal remains.

Dr O'Flaherty's disappearance was long seen as a tragic incident.

It was said that Belfast-born Dr O'Flaherty, who worked as an out-of-hours doctor in Strabane, Co Tyrone, had a history of depression. On the day she vanished she reportedly left several notes for her family.

Malin Head Coast Guard Marine Rescue, the RNLI Lough Swilly all-weather lifeboat and Greencastle Coast Guard spent three weeks after the discovery of her car searching the area, with divers combing cliffs along the bay.

The searches were stood down at the end of January 2009 and the mother's body was never recovered.

At the time, Dr O'Flaherty's younger brother Aidan described his sister as a "high-spirited character in many ways" who "was fiercely proud of the home and family she and Ken had created". He said her death left her heartbroken family with many "unanswered questions".

Gardai moved to rule out speculation that Dr O'Flaherty had been spotted in Spain and America.

Speaking at the time, Moville Garda Superintendent William Johnston said the rumours had "absolutely no foundation" and that the investigation was ongoing.

On the first anniversary of her disappearance, Supt Johnston said the area where Dr O'Flaherty's car had been found was an "unusual stretch of water".

"We know that, sometimes, people who have gone in there have been washed up," he said.

"It is concerning that there has been no sign of her. That is as far as we can go unless something else comes up. All we can do at this time is keep the file open."

Three years after she vanished, a High Court in Belfast used new legislation for the first time in Northern Ireland to rule that Dr O'Flaherty had died.

The Presumption of Death Act 2009 was introduced to speed up the process by which a missing person can be declared dead. The judge declared that she had entered the sea on January 11, 2009 and subsequently drowned.

Earlier this week, as her family prepared to mark the 10th anniversary of her death, gardai announced they were searching for her body 60 miles away from where her car was discovered at Kinnego Bay.

The land search and excavation, centred on the site of a wind farm close to Rathmullan in Co Donegal, was carried out by members of the Donegal Divisional Search Team and Garda Technical Bureau, along with private contractors.

The fresh searches were said to have been sparked by a letter sent to gardai citing fresh information on the case. Gardai said yesterday that it had concluded, adding: "Nothing that furthers the search for Deirdre was located during the search."

In the years after her death her siblings held a charity run to raise funds for the teams who searched tirelessly for their much-loved sister. The monies raised went to Greencastle Coast Guard, Inishowen Sub Aqua Club and Portrush Lifeboat. This week there has been a sense of shock and disbelief in Strabane as news filtered through about the fresh searches for the popular doctor.

The story was prominent in the local newspaper and the talk of many in the main street.

But one Strabane councillor warned people to be mindful of speculation and the fact that there was a grieving family at the heart of the tragedy.

Independent councillor Paul Gallagher said: "There is a sense of shock and of mystery at the news of the new searches after 10 years.

"People don't know what is going on, they are completely in the dark. People do what people will do and that is speculate, and that is not helpful.

"There is a family at the heart of this."

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