The case of four Derry men wrongly accused of murdering a British soldier in the 1970s has been likened to “the plot of a very bad B movie”.
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 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 them
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 now informed representatives of the ‘Derry 4’ that it’s likely it will be “some considerable period of time” before its investigation is complete.
Police chiefs say the detectives investigating the matter are drawn from the same group of officers investigating recent murders and a number of “complex and sensitive historic murders.”
The PSNI says that, given the current financial and resourcing climate, “it operates a prioritisation process based on actual threat to the public” and that this determines the level of resourcing each probe receives.
Paul O’Connor, of the Pat Finucane Centre, which has been campaigning of behalf of the ‘Derry 4’, likened the case to the “plot of a very bad B movie.”
He said: “The PSNI is investigating (or not) the Police Ombudsman which was investigating the RUC. And the victims in all this, the four men who were abused in Strand Road RUC barracks and then framed for a murder they didn’t commit, are left waiting, after all these years, for some semblance of justice. We said when the case against two former RUC detectives collapsed that an outside force should deal with this mess. Instead, the PSNI took it on where there is, in our opinion, a clear conflict of interest.”
Michael Toner, of the ‘Derry 4’, described the situation as a “nightmare”.
Speaking from his home in Waterford, he said: “We are now in the 37th year of this nightmare and it’s an absolute disgrace that we cannot receive our final report from the Ombudsman because of the failure of the PSNI to wrap this up.
“This has really taken its toll, emotionally and physically, on all of us and our families. We live with this every day and this latest letter from the PSNI is devastating.
“We would appeal to the people of Derry, the political parties, the churches, the unions and the community and voluntary sector, to please tell the PSNI this cannot and must not be delayed any longer,” added Mr. Toner.