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24 July 2003 Edition

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It takes more than a gunman

By Laura Friel


It takes more than a gunman. It takes more than a culture of race hatred in which "yaba daba do any Taig will do". It takes more than a getaway car or, as in the shooting of 19-year-old Gerard Lawlor, a speeding drive-by motorbike. It takes more than the silence of gang members, or the complicity of the killersí friends, or family.

Last week the PSNI admitted they KNOW who killed Catholic teenager Gerard Lawlor. But despite this, the PSNI say THERE WILL BE NO ARRESTS and that currently there is NO PROSPECT OF CHARGES, let alone the prospect of a trial and convictions.

Announcing that, once again, known loyalist killers will literally be "getting away with murder"í PSNI Detective Superintendent Roy Suitters cited the absence of "new" evidence as the reason behind his inability to prosecute the case.

"New"í as opposed to "any"í suggests that the PSNI have already pursued every line of inquiry they could reasonably be expected to pursue. Listening to the detective superintendent, you may be tempted to anticipate his frustration after a yearlong investigation without a breakthrough.

Your imagination might conjure images of late nights at police stations, with officers pouring over the fine detail of their murder investigation or earnestly discussing the case with their colleagues.

You could be forgiven for imagining dedicated professionals working around the clock, in their determination to bring the killers to justice and safeguard the community from further attack. But forget these fantastic imaginings. Like so many aspects of life in the Six Counties, things are far from what they might first appear.

Gerard Lawlor, a young father of one, was shot dead on the Floral Road, in the Whitewell area of north Belfast, as he walked home from the nearby Bellevue Arms bar, in July 2002.

The 19-year-old forklift truck driver was identified as a Catholic target by his killers, because he was wearing a Celtic football top and walking toward a nationalist housing estate. Gerard was shot twice in the back with a .38 revolver, by two men travelling on a motorbike, and he died at the scene.

In the year since his death, despite the fact that the PSNI have admitted they "know" who the killers areí no one has been arrested and the homes of the suspects have not been searched. No one has been charged.

A number of witnesses who came forward have never been contacted, let alone interviewed. In the light of this, it is easy to see why the PSNI, twelve months into an investigation, have been "unable"í to discover any significant evidence.

But this abject failure to investigate the killing isn't even the worst aspect of the case. When it comes to the sectarian killing of Catholics in the north, complacency at the heart of the justice system is so endemic that failure to investigate a murder doesn't even have to be covered up or denied. Worse still, it is presented as a wholly reasonable response.

And if you have any doubts, consider the words of Roy Suitters. Here is an officer who has achieved the rank of detective superintendent in the PSNI, an officer at the heart of the PSNI's investigation into a spate of sectarian killings, including those of Gerard Lawlor, Daniel McColgan, Ciaran Cummings and Gavin Brett. The latter shot dead in the mistaken belief he was a Catholic. In all four cases the PSNI have admitted they know the identity of the loyalist killers responsible for the deaths, but in all four cases no one has been charged.

Roy Suitters is a high-ranking and significantly placed PSNI officer. And his words, reported in the media last week, were not off-duty, off-guard, off-the-cuff remarks, but part of a formal interview. Superintendent Suitters was sellected by the PSNI to meet the media and answer questions about the Lawlor killing.

"You have to make decisions at the start of your inquiry, whether it is worth your while, a week later, bringing two people in who you know have burnt their clothes and got rid of anything that ties them to the murder," said the PSNI Superintendent.

As you can see, Roy Suitters isn't a man who minces his words. AT THE START, the Superintendent decided it wasn't WORTH HIS WHILE to carry out an investigation. After all, the loyalist killers who were KNOWN to have carried out the killing, had no doubt got away with murder before and probably would do so again. Apparently it would just be a waste of time and energy and taxpayers money to actually GO AND LOOK. And after such a TOUGH DECISION, it must be a relief to nip down to the officers' canteen and work on your press statements.

"My view is that, if I have to make arrests I will make arrests. People have been arrested for this murder, that murder, and they have all been released without charge, so what good did it do to go and arrest them?" said Detective Suitters.

These are not the words of a man disillusioned with his job. It's much worse than that. These are the words of a man for whom doing next to nothing has become synonymous with doing his job.

"I know if I simply go out for the sake of arrest, these people will not talk. Two days after the murder, the chances of them making admissions were nil," said Suitters.

So, according to a senior member of the PSNI, within two days of a killing, having identified the killers, it's not worth arresting them and, within a week, it's not worth looking for evidence. Given these exacting standards of investigation, it is nothing short of a miracle that any criminal is ever brought to justice by the PSNI.

"The inquiry hasn't been at a standstill, but, it would be fair to say, when you don't have information, when you don't have members of the public coming forward and you don't have forensic evidence, it does limit your lines of inquiry," he continued.

And there you have it. Catch 22. There's no point trying to gather evidence and, with no evidence gathered, there's no point in carrying out the investigation. But, like Voltaire's Candide, Superintendent Suitters remains undauntedly optimistic.

"You never, ever, say never in this game," said Suitters, "you never know what is round the next corner." A cynic might point out that the Superintendent will inevitably be condemned never to know what's around the next corner unless he's prepared to take a look.

"I can understand that people within the nationalist community think these loyalists are out killing Catholics and we are not catching them and putting them before the courts," said Suitters. "If I could do anything to catch these people I would do it."

Anything, I presume the detective superintendent means, that doesn't involve actually knocking on the killers' doors.

Meanwhile, retiring United Nations Special Rapporteur, Data Param Cumaraswamy, has said the failure to save Rosemary Nelson has been the only regret of his nine-year term of office.

In 1997 the UN Human Rights monitor was tasked with investigating the killing of Belfast Defence Lawyer Pat Finucane and continuing official harassment of lawyers in the Six Counties. During his visit he met a number of lawyers, including Rosemary Nelson. The Lurgan based lawyer detailed an experience of harassment from the RUC, almost identical to that experienced by Finucane just prior to his murder.

The UN official contacted the British government to raise concerns about the safety of Rosemary Nelson and urged the government to take steps to protect her. Instead, the British government denied Nelson access to the Key Persons Protection Scheme, while the RUC Chief Constable at the time, Ronnie Flannagan, failed to take any disciplinary action against his officers. She died in a car bomb attack two years later.

"In the case of Rosemary Nelson I was concerned for her, for her life. I had intervened with the government about various threats. And when her murder happened, though I was very, very saddened in many ways, I was not surprised. And the question I ask is, why wasn't she given adequate protection?" said Cumaraswamy.

"Similarly, they did not give adequate protection to Patrick Finucane, when there was evidence at the time that the security forces, particularly the RUC, knew, or ought to have known, that he was going to be murdered and they never protected him.

"My only disappointment in the whole process is that Rosemary Nelson could have been saved and protected after the Patrick Finucane experience. I only hope that, after these two murders, the authorities will be extremely cautious in seeing that similar murders are not committed by anyone."

It takes more than a gunman to kill a Catholic or murder a defence lawyer. It takes a culture of complacency, a practice of doing nothing or next to nothing. It takes the complicity of state institutions and the compliance of their forces. And it takes negligence at the heart of government.
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