Belfast Telegraph

Curious case of Gareth O'Connor

26 July 2004

He has been described as an enigmatic figure who has left "many unanswered questions". So can the Provisional IRA, the Real IRA or, indeed, the PSNI now provide the key to the mysterious disappearance of Gareth O'Connor after he set off for a drive over the border? Chris Thornton reports.

Someone is telling lies about the disappearance of Gareth O'Connor. And in the year between the moment he vanished somewhere in the reaches of south Armagh and the moment when four men walked out of a Belfast courtroom last month, it has become clear that others are failing to tell the whole truth.

O'Connor was a burly 24-year-old when he rose from his bed on a Sunday morning in May last year and set off to drive over the border. His partner, his young children and his parents have not seen him since. He is presumed dead.

The reason for his disappearance remains unclear. O'Connor may have been a senior dissident republican, but he may also have been an important police informer. As the judge who freed the four men last month concluded, he was an enigmatic figure who has left "many unanswered questions". The Provisional IRA or the Real IRA, or even both groups, hold the answers to Gareth O'Connor's probable death.

But the PSNI may also have some of the answers. And they have already been reluctant to tell anyone - including their own detective and Crown prosecutors - what they know.

Gareth O'Connor's disappearance was the centre of a political storm last year, because police publicly blamed - and continue to do so - the Provisional IRA for his disappearance. The IRA denied it, but Mr O'Connor's connections to dissident republicans helped it appear that the Provos were practising their own brutal methods to crush dissent.

But earlier this year it emerged that the Real IRA may have had its own reasons for wishing Mr O'Connor would disappear. At the time he vanished, he was awaiting trial in the Republic, accused of being a member of the Real IRA. He was on his way to answer bail when he disappeared.

But it also turned out he was a crucial, if then unknown, lynchpin in the case of four Tyrone men awaiting trial in Northern Ireland. Their case would ultimately transform the little we know about Gareth O'Connor.

And he transformed their trial. Gareth O'Connor may have been the catalyst for the arrest of Donald Mullan, Sean Dillon, Brendan O'Connor and Kevin Murphy in February 2002, when they were arrested in a field in Coalisland beside a rocket launcher. He was certainly one of the main reasons for their release.

During the trial, the men said they had no connection with the rocket launcher. They were only in the field, they said because they were embarking on a burglary that had been organised by Gareth O'Connor.

Blaming a missing man may have looked convenient for the defence case, but they had evidence with which to work.

During the trial, they produced phone records which showed Gareth O'Connor had been in regular contact with some of the defendants and had later phoned police. What's more, the defence said, police had supplied his two mobile phones.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Girvan said he had not found and was not seeking to imply - as the defence claimed - that Gareth O'Connor had entrapped the men. But what caused the judge's "unease and suspicion" was the police's attempts to deny the link with O'Connor until presented with the phone records.

The police did not, as this newspaper incorrectly reported near the conclusion of the trial, seek a Public Interest Immunity Certificate to prevent sensitive material from reaching the public domain.

Instead, Mr Girvan noted, they withheld evidence from their own detective investigating the case - deliberately keeping him in the dark - and pointedly failed to tell Crown lawyers about phone contact when it first became an issue.

The judge also noted that suspicion about the case had been heightened because there had been tampering with one of the defendant's phones to remove records of contacts he had had.

Police conduct, he said, "cannot avoid criticism".

"The clear impression left by the material now before the court is that the police were deliberately failing to disclose disclosable information relating to the contacts between Gareth O'Connor and the police," the judge said.

"They may have felt that this was justifiable course of action to safeguard sources of information but the clear impression is that the police deliberately kept the prosecution authority in the dark about this matter. This leads to a suspicion that the police did not want the prosecuting authority to have the information.

"Where there is sensitive information that the police seek to avoid disclosing there are proper and lawful ways to protect the information if protection is required in the public interest. Secreting the information from the prosecuting authority is not the way to do it. If that is done then suspicion, unease and doubt are aroused."

The PSNI has started its own review of the case, but the judge's criticisms have drawn the attention of Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, who may now investigate the police conduct. Perhaps that inquiry will shed a little more light on the curious case of Gareth O'Connor.

Other cases where investigating officers have been left in dark

The PSNI's failure to tell one of its own detectives about key aspects of the Tyrone rocket launcher find did not mark the first time police have been found to be keeping investigating officers in the dark.

Two months before the seizure, Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan's devastating report on the Omagh bombing investigation found that RUC Special Branch had deliberately kept "significant intelligence" to itself for years after the 1997 Real IRA attack.

And two months later, the Belfast Telegraph found that the detective investigating the 1994 murder of pensioner Roseanne Mallon had not been told that soldiers were at the scene of the killing, had first reported it and were ordered "not to react".

Special Branch also decided not to tell the detective that they had a video surveillance operation at the scene, even though he was looking for a car that appeared to scout the scene before the killing.

But Police Ombusdman Nuala O'Loan said in her Omagh report that, because there were no written policies about intelligence sharing, "it would not be possible or right to initiate any misconduct action against officers for failure to disseminate intelligence appropriately".

A written policy on intelligence sharing has now been established by the PSNI.

In the judgement on the Tyrone case, Mr Justice Girvan noted that police may have legitimate reasons for keeping something secret, but said there are "proper and lawful ways to protect the information.

"Secreting the information from the prosecuting authority is not the way to do it."

In a statement, the PSNI said: "Crime operation department was set up in March this year to improve the dissemination of intelligence between key areas of policing and to better manage sensitive terrorist investigations."

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