The case of four Derry men wrongly accused of murdering a British soldier in the 1970s has been branded a “bizarre, sordid farce’ by a human rights group.
The ‘Derry 4’ - Gerry McGowan, Stephen Crumlish, Michael Toner and Gerry Kelly, from Creggan - were all aged 17 when they were charged with the murder of Lt. Stephen Andrew Kirby 37 years ago.
Lt. Kirby, an officer in the Welch Fusiliers, was shot by an IRA sniper while on foot patrol in the Abercorn Road area on February 14, 1979. The four Derry teens fled across the border when released on bail accused of the murder. They remained on the run until the charges against them were dropped in 1998.
Their treatment by the RUC was investigated by the Police Ombudsman (PONI) and, in 2012, the matter was referred to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). Based on the Ombudsman’s report, the PPS decided to bring charges against two former RUC detectives. However, this prosecution later collapsed after no evidence was offered against the police officers.
Subsequently, it emerged that a former investigator with the police watchdog could face criminal charges over his handling of the case.
The Ombudsman’s Office confirmed it had referred its own investigation to the PSNI to consider if any of its staff had broken the law.
The PSNI has again indicated that it could be some considerable time before its investigation is complete.
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr has told an independent member of the Policing Board that the ‘Derry 4’ case is with one of the PSNI’s Major Investigation Teams (MIT) which, he says, has a substantial case load where matters are subject to prioritisation.
In the recent correspondence, seen by the ‘Journal’, ACC Kerr insists “inquiries will be completed expeditiously, in line with the other demands on police resources and the Chief Constable’s priority of keeping people safe today.”
Paul O’Connor, of the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), which has been campaigning of behalf of the ‘Derry 4’, said the situation “could not be more bizarre”.
He told the ‘Journal’: “These men were just teenagers when they were forced into signing forced confessions. They are victims of abuse by an institution - the police. Now the police are charged with investigating how their complaints about this abuse were recorded. It really is farcical.”
Mr. O’Connor added: “Now the PSNI has indicated that it has other priorities and the case of the ‘Derry 4’ appears to have been put to the back of the queue. This means, in effect, that the ‘Derry 4’, the victims in this sordid farce, are unable to receive their final report from the Police Ombudsman. It’s utterly ludicrous.”
Neither the ‘Derry 4’ nor the PFC, says Mr. O’Connor, will co-operate with any PSNI investigation.
“It is our contention that the involvement of the PSNI in this case has blocked delivery of a PONI report into wrongdoing by police officers,” he added. “This impasse is unacceptable.”