Police should reveal which paramilitary group they suspect of murdering a Co Armagh father-of-two, irrespective of the potential political fallout, a coroner’s court has been told.
Gareth O’Connor, 24, disappeared near the border in 2003 on his way to sign bail on a charge of Real IRA membership. His body was found two years later in a car dumped in Newry canal. No-one has ever been convicted.
His family allege he was murdered by the Provisional IRA – a claim the organisation denied at the time he vanished – while there have also been suggestions dissident republicans may have been involved.
At a preliminary hearing in Belfast ahead of his inquest, a barrister representing the North’s Senior Coroner John Leckey stressed the importance of the PSNI revealing which group it suspected of involvement.
Gerry McAlinden QC said the inquest was potentially the only forum where the family could seek “some element of closure” into the death of Mr O’Connor.
He said if the police had “cogent or compelling evidence” about the responsibility of a particular group they should disclose it.
“The least an organ of the state can do is to provide that information in a public forum to the family to comply with state’s duty to ensure there’s a proper and vigorous investigation into the circumstances of the death of the deceased,” he said.
Mr McAlinden added: “There should be no reluctance to bring that information into the public domain irrespective of political fallout from that.”
His call came after a lawyer representing the O’Connor family questioned the extent of proposed redactions police had made in 45 files regarding the murder they had disclosed to court.
Paul Dougan said “almost every paramilitary grouping” was mentioned in the papers, but said potentially key information was blanked out.
He referred to a number of sentences where names were blacked over – one which started “the following two persons were involved in the abduction of Gareth O’Connor...” and another that ended “...may have had a hand in Gareth O’Connor’s abduction”.
He then produced an 11-page document disclosed by the PSNI that was entirely blanked out.
“How is anybody supposed to know what that is?” he asked the court.
“That could be a confession from a person who made an admission for all I know.”
Mr Dougan added: “There are 45 lever arch files full of information about who was and who wasn’t involved – the police know who killed this guy.”
The lawyer said the family acknowledged there might be difficulties revealing the names of suspects in court but he said there was no reason the organisation involved could not be disclosed.
“I doubt whether individuals will be revealed but I think we can identify the group that was involved,” said Mr Dougan.
“The family recognise that may be the best outcome for them.”
Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said he had received no instructions if the police could disclose the name of any suspected organisation, but he suggested there could be a difficulty in terms of the human rights obligation not to put anyone at risk.
“If a grouping is identified and particular individuals are high profile in that group, that may make them targets,” he said.
Mr Dougan rejected the argument, insisting that to name an organisation would not automatically put any members at risk.
“I just don’t think that makes any sense,” he said.
Mr O’Connor, from Knockamell Park, Armagh, disappeared in May 2003 on his way to sign bail at a Dundalk Garda station in the Republic of Ireland.
He had been charged in Ireland with membership of the dissident republican organisation the previous year.
The first hour of today’s preliminary hearing was held in public before proceedings were closed to enable Mr Leckey and the PSNI’s representatives to discuss whether any of the redactions needed to be reviewed.
The next hearing is due to take place in Belfast on November 7.