So here, to re-iterate to those not following what is controversial and what is not controversial about the OTR letter issue here is a case which aptly demonstrates the former. There’s added interest in this case since it involves the murder of someone which took place in the post GFA period, that of Gareth O’Connor..
The PSNI mistakenly gave an on-the-run (OTR) letter to the man whom the inquest was told is the main suspect in the O’Connor murder.
It also emerged at the inquest on Monday that it was Sinn Féin junior minister at Stormont and IRA Old Bailey bomber Gerry Kelly who eventually passed the letter to the individual who has been identified as the main suspect in the killing of the County Armagh man.
It was one of 200 letters of assurance given to wanted IRA members as part of a deal between Tony Blair’s government and Sinn Féin during negotiations aimed at securing IRA decommissioning, republican support for new policing reforms and the restoration of devolution.
Northern Ireland’s senior coroner, John Leckey, on Monday described Gerry Kelly’s role in the case as a “matter of public concern”.
Speaking outside the inquest, the solicitor for the O’Connor family, 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.
“The concern that I have from the family’s perspective is that from late June, or the publication of this report [by Lady Justice Heather Hallett 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 myself late on Friday evening. That to me is the most alarming aspect of these developments today.”
A lawyer representing the PSNI said the organisation apologised unreservedly for the “upset and distress” the timing of the disclosure may have caused the O’Connor family, who were preparing to sit through a week-long inquest.
“This should not have happened,” he said.
The BBC identifies the nature of the mistake identified by Lady Justice Hallett, but not previously disclosed to the Coroner…
Her report said Operation Rapid – the PSNI team tasked with assessing the OTR cases – had reviewed an individual “linked to two terrorism offences in the 1970s, as well as serious offences in 2003”.
A letter from Det Ch Supt Norman Baxter to ACC Peter Sheridan made a “somewhat ambiguous reference to the 2003 offence”, but then stated there was no basis to seek the person’s arrest for any offence prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the report said.
The judge said a subsequent letter signed by ACC Sheridan to the Public Prosecution Service “did not contain the caveat in relation to the agreement and simply stated, ‘enquiries indicate that XXXX is not currently wanted by PSNI’.”
Well, there’s another inquest stopped in its tracks. [Someone inadvertently availing of Gerry’s public interest argument again? – Ed]. You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty