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22 November 2007 Edition

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Judge orders coroner to halt inquest

BY LAURA FRIEL

AN inquest into the UDA murder of Catholic teenager Gerard Lawlor in July 2002 was halted after a judge ordered the coroner to stop the proceedings in Belfast last week. The High Court’s dramatic intervention followed a refusal by coroner John Leckey to postpone the inquest until the completion of a Police Ombudsman’s investigation into possible collusion by state forces in the killing.
Proceedings at the coroner’s court were interrupted when lawyers acting on behalf of the Lawlor family informed the coroner of the judge’s decision to halt the inquest pending a judicial review. A full judicial review has been scheduled at Belfast High Court next Monday with the inquest postponed until Tuesday.
Coroner Leckey agreed to suspend proceedings at the inquest until a final decision from the High Court. Solicitor Niall Murphy said the family was seeking a wider inquest than that which had been arranged. Speaking outside the court, Murphy expressed concern that a key witness had not been called to give evidence at the inquest.
“The Ombudsman and the police had been provided with a witness statement from a member of the public outlining these concerns and that witness had not been called before Mr Leckey.
“Also not addressed were concerns the Lawlor family have in relation to the suspects being police informers.”
Gerard Lawlor had been walking home in the Whitewell area of North Belfast when he was shot twice in the back and legs by two UDA gunmen. The killers were seen fleeing the scene on a motorbike. The 19-year-old father had been identified by his assailants as a Catholic as he walked towards a nationalist estate. He died at the scene.
The fatal shooting was one of a series of sectarian gun attacks carried out by the UDA in North Belfast that night. As well as murdering Gerard Lawlor, another Catholic, Jason O’Halloran, was shot and seriously wounded as he stood talking to a friend at Roseapenna Street.
UDA gangs also fired on two men at Salisbury Avenue, off the Antrim Road, put a gun to the head of Ryan Corbett at the Old Park (he escaped after the weapon jammed) and fired shots at people in the Old Cavehill Road and Ligoniel areas.
Significantly, these attacks took place during a two-hour period before the Lawlor killing. Questions have been raised concerning the apparent ease with which UDA gunmen were able to roam and launch attacks along an interface area in North Belfast for several hours unimpeded by the PSNI.
Concern about the PSNI’s repeated lack of response to what was a series of significant gun attacks is not the only issue to have been raised. The failure to investigate the killing and the other related incidents — as well as the refusal to pursue a case against the known killers — are also at the core of the collusion allegation.
Jason O’Halloran was shot and seriously injured by UDA gunmen less than an hour before the fatal shooting of Gerard Lawlor. O’Halloran was shot half an hour after and within 200 yards from where Ryan Corbett was nearly killed. Unbelievably, after the attempted murder of Ryan Corbett, there had been no follow-up operation by the PSNI.
Earlier this year, the Ombudsman upheld a complaint by O’Halloran that his shooting had never been properly investigated by the PSNI. The Ombudsman ordered the PSNI to review their investigation and provide O’Halloran with “a full explanation of their actions regarding the case”.
Speaking after the Ombudsman’s ruling, Jason O’Halloran said:
“If there had been any real effort to police North Belfast that night, I might never have been shot and Gerard Lawlor might still be alive today.”
During a formal interview to mark the first anniversary of the Lawlor murder in July 2003, the PSNI said they knew who had killed the Catholic teenager but admitted that suspects had not been searched or questioned, let alone arrested or charged.
In a remarkable interview, the stunning complacency of the PSNI in relation to the Lawlor murder was inadvertently exposed by a high-ranking officer at the heart of the murder investigation. PSNI Detective Superintendent Roy Suitters told it how he and his officers saw it.
“You have to make the decision 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 murder.”
In other words, the PSNI detective heading the investigation decided from the outset that it was a waste of his time.
“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?”
At the time of the interview, An Phoblacht commented that these were not the words of a man disillusioned with his job. It was much worse than that. These were the words of a man for whom doing next to nothing had become synonymous with doing his job. Suitters and a number of other senior officers involved in handling the Lawlor investigation have since retired from the PSNI.
The PSNI’s systematic failure to investigate the Lawlor murder and the attempted murders of Jason O’Halloran and Ryan Corbett, underpins the belief that those responsible may have been Special Branch agents. In the past, Special Branch primacy within the RUC was often used to scupper investigations as a means of protecting agents.
An investigation by the Ombudsman’s office earlier this year exposed Special Branch protection of a notorious UVF killer, Mark Haddock, also operating within North Belfast.
Commenting on the court action to postpone the inquest into Gerard Lawlor’s murder pending the Ombudsman’s collusion probe, solicitors acting for the family welcomed the intervention of the High Court but said it was regrettable that they were forced to take such drastic action during “a very distressing time for the family”. They added:
“We will be asking for the inquest to be approached afresh once issues surrounding an Ombudsman investigation and outstanding witnesses are resolved.”
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