Northern Ireland

Gareth O'Connor murder suspect got On the Run letter

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Media captionGareth O'Connor went missing in May 2003, as Gordon Adair reports

The PSNI has apologised to a murder victim's family after it emerged a man considered to be a chief suspect was mistakenly given an On the Run letter.

A lawyer for the coroner said Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly's role over the letter was a matter of public concern.

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.

His family have always believed he was killed by the Provisional IRA, despite assurances to the contrary from senior figures in the republican movement, including Mr Kelly.

On Monday, it emerged that in 2008 an On The Run letter was issued to a leading suspect. The letter was delivered to that man by Sinn Féin MLA Mr Kelly.

Under the On the Runs letter scheme, more than 200 people were told they were not wanted for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

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

Today, the coroner read from a statement made by Gareth O'Connor's father. He said he had phoned Gerry Kelly a week after his son went missing.

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Image caption His body was found in a car recovered from Newry canal in 2005

He said Mr Kelly had told him he had no knowledge of the murder, but that he would look into it and get back to him if he received any other information.

The inquest has now been postponed with the coroner telling Mr O'Connor's family that the matter will now have to be investigated further with a view to a criminal prosecution

The O'Connor family's solicitor, Paul Dougan, said: "Some quite startling revelations have emerged today, in particular the existence of an On the Run letter and the reasons why the existence of that letter has prevented the inquest starting this morning.

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Media captionPaul Dougan, solicitor for the O'Connor family, says the news about the letter came "as a complete surprise"

"The concern that I have from the family's perspective is that from late June, or the publication of this [Hallet] report [into the On the Runs issue] on 17 July of 2014 that this information was known to the authorities.

"It was known both to the Northern Ireland Office who issued this letter and it was known to the police.

"And yet the coroner only became aware of it by lunchtime on Friday and the family only became aware of it through my self late in Friday evening. That to me is the most alarming aspect of these developments today."

Lady Justice Hallett's report referred to the letter, sent to "an individual linked to two terrorism offences in the 1970s, as well as serious offences in 2003", as "error 2".

When the letter was sent from the PSNI to the office of the DPP, it included the wording "on the basis of the information currently available, there is no outstanding direction for prosecution in Northern Ireland, there are no warrants in existence nor are you wanted in Northern Ireland for arrest, questioning or charge by the police".

There was no reference to the 2003 offence and a "wanted" flag in relation to the crime was later removed from the police computer system, at the same time that it was done for the 1970 offences.

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