Claims that two police intelligence branch officers visited a Strabane republican in custody in a Derry police station just hours before he took his own life must be fully investigated before an inquest can be held, a coroner has said.
The probe into the death of John Brady (40) inside Strand Road police station in October 2009 had been due to be heard early next month, but Northern Ireland’s Senior Coroner John Leckey said the need to examine the allegation could now see the inquest delayed by at least a year.
At a preliminary hearing in Belfast, a representative for the Police Ombudsman confirmed that officers from the PSNI’s C3 unit - formerly known as Special Branch - had attended the station’s custody suite on the day, but said there was no evidence they had contact with Mr. Brady.
The issue was raised after a lawyer representing Mr Brady at the time of his death - John Finucane - wrote to the coroner to relay a claim made to him that intelligence branch officers had seen his client.
Mr Finucane told Mr Leckey he was made aware of the claim when he attended a subsequent police disciplinary hearing which related to his client’s care in custody.
Noting that the alleged contact happened at a time when he was not in the custody suite, Mr Finucane added: “I am reporting what’s been said to me. In regard to whether it happened or not, I can’t be of assistance with that.”
Philip McAteer, representing the PSNI, acknowledged the claim was a serious matter and stressed the need to establish the facts before the inquest proceeded. “This could be an example of a conspiracy theory that has developed at some stage,” he said.
The lawyer expressed concern that unverified claims could be raised during the inquest.
Paul Holmes, representing Police Ombudsman Michael McGuire, confirmed that C3 officers had been in the Strand Road facility on the day.
“C3 did attend the custody suite but there is no evidence that they actually had contact with Mr Brady,” he said.
Mr Leckey asked that all the proceedings of the police’s disciplinary hearing were transcribed so the court could examine them for potential references to the incident.
He also accepted an offer from Mr Holmes to interview the individuals who had attended the disciplinary session.
Noting that the transcription would take four weeks, Mr Leckey conceded the scheduled start date of November 5 would be missed.
Explaining that his diary was full for at least the next year, he warned that the inquest could be subject to delay, barring a hitch to another scheduled inquest.
“I have no availability for a year - that’s the reality.”