Controversy for Sinn Fein as OTR revelation halts O’Connor inquest

February 2, 2015

Sinn Fein has been called on to answer “serious questions” after the revelation that an On The Run (OTR) letter, issued to a key suspect in the murder of Armagh man Gareth O’Connor, dramatically halted the inquest into his death last week.

The Armagh Coroner’s Court inquest was postponed on Monday last after disclosure to the court revealed that senior Sinn Fein figure, Gerry Kelly MLA, had delivered an OTR letter to the main suspect in the murder investigation in October 2008.

The controversial On the Runs letter scheme, provided confirmation to more than 200 people suspected of paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that they were not being sought by the authorities.

Mr O’Connor was 24 when he disappeared in May 2003 while on his way to Dundalk Garda Station to sign as part of his bail conditions after being charged with membership of the Real IRA.  Two years later, a car containing his body was dragged from Newry Canal on the Omeath Road after a tip-off to the PSNI.  At the time the Provisional IRA denied any involvement in the murder.

On Monday, 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 and that 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. Mr O’Connor has now publicly called for the resignation of Gerry Kelly.

In response Mr Kelly said the O’Connor family deserved access to the truth.

The Sinn Fein MLA said it was a matter of public knowledge that his name was attached to OTR letters as the conduit person for Sinn Féin.

“If someone approached Sinn Féin and asked Sinn Féin to enquire if they were wanted for questioning by the PSNI, I would take four pieces of information from them; their full name, date of birth, what area of the North they had lived in and when they left the jurisdiction,” said Mr Kelly.

He said the details were then passed to the NIO and the process after that belonged to the NIO and the British government.

“The NIO informed Sinn Féin that they then checked with the various constabularies and if word came back to Sinn Féin that a person was not wanted a letter was issued and that letter would be addressed to the recipient but would include’ via Gerry Kelly’ on it. I had no other role in these cases.

“That is the full extent of my knowledge in all of these cases, including the one alluded to in these reports.”

Mr Kelly said he met with Gareth O’Connor’s family at their request and told them that he did not have any information about the disappearance of their son and “that remains the case.”

“This family deserves access to truth and I would support them in that.”

Local political representatives have called for Sinn Fein and Gerry Kelly to offer the O’Connor family an explanation.

Ulster Unionist MLA for Newry & Armagh Danny Kennedy said the issue was “another damaging revelation around a corrupt scheme arranged between the Government and Sinn Fein.”

“It fuels a perception of a two tier system of justice in operation whereby those in the know with Sinn Fein have been able to get their hands on letters of comfort which in some cases have had the effect of being a get out of jail free card, “ he said.

Mr Kennedy added that he was “astounded” that the main suspect in the murder case was not  interviewed due to him being in receipt of an OTR letter.

“This is not how the Criminal Justice system ought to operate” said Mr Kennedy.

He called for “a full public explanation by Gerry Kelly and others within the republican movement.” “Those responsible for bringing this scheme forward, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, should be deeply ashamed of themselves.”

SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh, Dominic Bradley said Gerry Kelly has “serious questions to answer about the murder of Gareth O’Connor.”

He said the postponement of the inquest because of the OTR discovery was “deeply disturbing” and that the existence of the letter “points strongly to IRA involvement in the murder.”

He demanded that Gerry Kelly now come forward to “reveal all he knows about this horrendous case” and accused the Sinn Fein MLA of evading the Westminster OTR inquiry.

“He denies victims and their families truth and he denies them justice.  He cannot be allowed to do so again,” said Mr Bradley.