Search

18/09/2021

'Derry 4': How the arrests of four teenagers in 1979 set a bizarre chain of events in motion

Derry 4

On Valentine’s Day 1979 Lieutenant Stephen Kirby of the Royal Welch Fusilier’s was shot dead by an IRA sniper close to Derry's city centre.

The 22-year-old soldier was on foot patrol at the junction of Abercorn Road and Wapping Lane when he was murdered. The soldier was struck in the chest by a single bullet and died a short time later at Altnagelvin Hospital. He was cremated after service in his home town of Northumberland Heath in Kent.

Two weeks later between February 26th and 28th four teenagers, all from Circular Road in Creggan were arrested for the IRA attack. Two of them were 17-years-old and the other two were 18-years-old. They have spent four decades maintaing their innocence.

The arrests of Stephen Crumlish, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly and Michael Toner set in motion a bizarre chain of events that saw the men flee across the border and into the Republic to live the majority of their adult lives to date in exile.

The subsequent campaign to clear their names was dubbed as the case of the 'Derry 4.'

On Tuesday this week at a press conference in the Rath More centre it was revealed that the 40 year nightmare the four men endured had finally concluded. This came after the men received substantial financial compensation from the PSNI Chief Constable as part of an out of court settlement.

However, back in 1979 at the time of the arrests, the four were detained at Strand Road RUC barracks  for a period believed to have been up to three days. During that 72 hours there were denied access to lawyers, legal advice and their families.

All four men later stated they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse by the RUC officers who interviewed them. As a result of the treatment they received at the hands of the police they signed false confessions in relation to the murder of Lt Kirby and to four knee-capping incidents in Derry.

Solely on the basis of the evidence extracted under duress the four men were charged and remanded into custody at Crumlin Road jail in Belfast. They were held there for six weeks until they were granted bail at the High Court under strict conditions including having to report to police on a daily basis and being placed under curfew.

As the trial of the four young men approached great efforts were made in Derry to halt the false prosecution. This not only involved family and friends but local priests, community activists and politicians.

All four of the men willingly submitted to a lie detector test by a U.S. expert that had been arranged by Michael Toner's father. And. all of them passed the test. The test results were amongst a substantial file of evidence submitted to Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions. However, the efforts were in vain and the prosecution of the 'Derry 4' continued.

The trial began at Belfast Crown Court on October 13, 1980. The men were permitted bail during the course of the hearing. Two days into the proceedings the four received advice that because of the nature of Diplock Courts with judges sitting without juries, their defence would prove to be useless.

Next day, the men left Derry and headed across the border and to a life in exile.

On October 15, 1980 Belfast Crown Court issued bench warrants that sight they were to be arrested on sight. But, for for the next two decades all of the men lived their lives under the shadow of an accusation of murder.

It was in 1996 that lawyer Patricia Coyle was introduced to the case.

She said: "Through the efforts of his brothers Gerard and Eamonn, I met with Michael Toner in Buncrana. My memory of that meeting is crystal clear even today.

"Michael Toner was so traumatized by the events in Strand Road 17 years earlier that he could barely discuss the detail. Over the coming months I made representations to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

"In December, 1998 the Director of Public Prosecutions confirmed in writing there would be no prosecution, on any charge, against any of my four clients."

It was on December 21, 1998 all four men were found not guilty of the murder of Lt Lirby and all other charges. In 1999, the acquittal was followed by an other directive that there would be no prosecution in relation to the four men leaving Northern Ireland during their 1980 trial.

"The 1998 acquittals simply confirmed publicly that and without doubt the innocence of my clients. What they did not have however was the truth about how this miscarriage of justice had occurred or had been allowed to occur. They have now spent another 20 years searching for that truth.

"In 2000 we issued writs in the High Court in Belfast against the Chief Constable for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, trespass to the person, misconduct in public office and malicious prosecution on behalf of all four of my clients," said Patricia Coyle.

The work of the 'Derry 4's' lawyer was accompanied in 2003 with the lodging of complaints to the Office of the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland by Paul O'Connor and Sara Duddy from the Pat Finucane Centre.

Part of the central tenet of these civil proceedings was to pursue the factual information of the original RUC investigation in 1979. Specific requests were lodged at court against the PSNI Chief Constable, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Public Prosecution Service, the Department of Justice, the Northern Ireland Office, MI5 and the Garda Commissioner.

A 2016 High Court hearing in relation to the pursuit of the information revealed that all police interview notes in relation to three of the 'Derry 4' were missing.

Then in April, 2018 the granting of a Court Order directed the PSNI Chief Constable to comply with the requests to release all the documents they held in relation to the case. When several files of information were released in May 2018 they provided a lot of answers, but not all of the answers required.

The revelations as such in the files were nevertheless shocking.

It was discovered that in 1991, 12 years after the 'Derry 4' had left Northern Ireland a senior lawyer in the Public Prosecution Service had directed all the police interview notes, records and original witness statements be subjected to ESDA testing. This is a forensic test which determines whether documents have been re-written or tampered with in any way. In itself, the call for this test was highly unusual and was normally something associated with defence cases.

Furthermore, it came to light that between January 1991 and October 1992 searches were made a local police stations and at police headquarters for the murder investigation file and the original RUC interview notes on which the forensic testing had been ordered.

The file could not be found.

Internal police reports provided to Patricia Coyle and the PFC in May 2018 showed that the missing files had last been stored in a locker by a police officer in a locker room of the CID section Strand Road RUC Station in 1985.

That police officer could not explain why the original file, including the court bench warrants and police interview notes, could not be found when the ESDA direction was issued by the public prosecutor in 1991.

Then in October 1992 the same senior lawyer in the DPP decided the prosecution could not continue. One reason for that decision was because the majority of the original documents were missing and could not be tested by forensics to establish their genuineness.

Patricia Coyle said: "My clients could not rule out the possibility that the original documents may have deliberately or otherwise destroyed either before or after the legal direction to have them forensically tested in 1991.

"The prosecution decision in October 1992 was never communicated to either my clients or their original lawyers who were still practising in Derry at the time. No explanation has ever been provided for this omission. My clients continued to live for a further six years under the shadow of a murder allegation in exile away from their families. The acquittals in 1998 before the Crown Court were as a result of their own proactive efforts."

Other glaring omissions arising from the handling of the investigation also came to light in the documents released under court direction by the police in May last year.

Firstly, this concerned the fact that a direct eye witness to the shooting of Lt Kirby had made a statement to the police on the night of the murder and identified a person other than the 'Derry 4'.

The same witness made another statement to police in another jurisdiction on October 15, 1980 at the outset of the trial to the effect that he had no knowledge of Stephen Crumlish, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly and Michael Toner. The police and Director of Public Prosecutions had access to this statement from October 1980.

Lawyer Patricia Coyle said: "It took 38 years and a High Court Order for that second statement to be disclosed to the defence.

"The other important documents provided to my clients in May 2018 included over 40 civilian alibi witness statements which placed all of them somewhere else at the time of the shooting of Lt Kirby and at the time of the alleged knee capping.

"These were provided to police by family members, friends and independent witnesses at the time of my clients' arrests in February 1979. An internal police report confirms the concerns between the volume and calibre of the alibi statements and the contradictory content of the false confessions."

At the press conference on Tuesday announcing the end of the civil proceedings by the 'Derry 4' against the PSNI Chief Constable Patricia Coyle added: "This settlement comes with no acceptance of liability on the part of the police. But my clients refused to accept a confidentiality condition as part of this settlement.

"Whatever the Chief Constable's position on responsibility, my clients are free to discuss the contents of the documents provided to them throughout the civil proceedings and the discovery process and the reasonable inferences and conclusions that they now draw from those documents.

"While some questions remain unanswered the payment of a significant sum of compensation to each of these gentlemen by the Chief Constable is a final vindication and correction of the public record.

"I would like to take this opportunity to commend my clients for their collective tenacity in pursuing and establishing their innocence in a justice system which was weighted against them and to their families, friends and the fearless campaigners for their unwavering support."

At the announcement at Rath Mor on Tuesday Paul O’Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre said: “It beggars belief that it was in 2003 that we had our first meeting with the Police Ombusdman here in Derry where we lodged a complaint about the actions of the RUC during the arrest of these four individuals.

“It’s 2019. We still don’t have a final report. We understand that there was a delay, an understandable delay when prosecutions were undertaken against two of the police officers involved in their interrogation and that prosecution collapsed for various reasons which the Director of Public Prosecutions should better address.

“We have a draft copy of the Police Ombusdmans investigation, but that’s a draft copy that contains no conclusions. However, the draft copy is interesting because from that we realise that the Police Ombudsman asked for linguistic tests to be carried out by two separate independent linguistics experts who looked at the statements that were still available and there was very limited information.

“In looking at that they came to the conclusion that the language used in the so-called confessions was not the language of the individuals concerned-that it simply did not match.

“There is a banner here which says ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ That not only applies to the actions of the RUC at that time and in particular we would single out the actions of two of the officers involved in the interrogations who are since deceased.

“There were advices sought on how one of them might still be prosecuted while he was still alive. That individual John Gray was responsible for very serious threats being made against family members of the Derry 4 of the most vile nature. He is no longer with us to answer those allegations and that’s part of the problem in this case.

“Added to the issue of justice delayed and justice denied are the actions of the Director of Public Prosecutions at the time, the actions of the RUC at the time and I have to say that I don’t think the men have been dealt with properly by the office of the Police Ombudsman.

“We filed a complaint in 2003 and in 2019 we still don’t have a report. There maybe a point when we get the final Ombudsmans report, we’ll obviously publish that at that time, we are not sure when that will happen yet.”

Gerry McGowan had been offered professional terms with Leicester City FC and was a team mate of a young Gary Lineker when he was accused of murdering Fusilier Stephen Kirby.

The murder accusation not only ended his dreams of being a professional footballer saw him embark on a 40 year campaign to clear his name and those of his friends.

On Tuesday in his home place of Creggan, a place he and his co-accused had been forced to flee, an at times emotional Mr McGowan read out a statement on behalf of the ‘Derry 4’

The statement said: "On behalf of the Derry Four we would like to thank our solicitor Patricia Coyle and those at Harte, Coyle Collins who have been with us since 1998 and helped secured our acquittal 20 years ago.

“We would like to thank Paul O’Connor and Sara Duddy from the Pat Finucane Centre, and all their colleagues over the years who have supported us.

“We thank our families who have endured this painful injustice with us over the past forty years. They have stood by us throughout, and we remember our loved ones who are not here today.

“We have endured a number of dark days over the past forty years. It has taken it toll on our health and our families, but we are now looking forward.

“This compensation will not undo the years of hurt and pain inflicted on us and our families, however it allows us to look to the future and we feel some sense of closure that the State is finally acknowledging their wrongdoing.

“Finally we would like to thank the people of Derry who have stood by us over the past forty years, and never doubted our innocence."

Another of the ‘Derry 4’ Gerry Kelly said at Tuesday’s press conference: “It hasn’t been easy but this is a good day. I think it’s one of the best days since this all began. I’m just delighted that it’s finished for the boys and myself our families and everybody in Derry.

“We can walk away with some degree of happiness and put and end to this torture.”

And responding to the fact that part of the settlement means that the police have accepted no liability in the case Gerry McGowan added: “Well, I think the fact that they have paid out, for want of a better word damages surely is an admission of their guilt. Everyone has been aware of our innocence for the last 40 years, so whether they want to admit it or not, there’s nothing we can do but we’ll just move along with our lives.

“I knew for three or four days that my mother was going to pass away. So, I sat in Killarney for three or four days knowing that my mother was dying and when she was buried the funeral cortege was brought down to Co Donegal with my then baby son and my wife. They opened the coffin in the church and allowed me to say goodbye to my mother. But, after the church my wife was able to go up and see my mother getting buried but I wasn’t.

“How could you do that to any human being? Not allowed into see his mother, not only pass away but not allowed to attend her funeral. God forgive them.

Michael Toner said: “It’s as raw as it was from day one. In the course of the 20 years we were on the run we lost our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and they have been in our thoughts today.

“We’ll just move on now and try and get closure on this. It’s been a long 40 years and a very, very emotional day for me and the three guys and our family and friends. For me, it’s closure. I walk away from here now. It’s over now. We can never correct what they did but it’s over.

“The people of Derry have known from day one that they got four innocent young men and turned their lives upside down. But it’s finally over.”

“I knew for three or four days that my mother was going to pass away. So, I sat in Killarney for three or four days knowing that my mother was dying and when she was buried the funeral cortege was brought down to Co Donegal with my then baby son and my wife. They opened the coffin in the church and allowed me to say goodbye to my mother. But, after the church my wife was able to go up and see my mother getting buried but I wasn’t.

“How could you do that to any human being? Not allowed into see his mother, not only pass away but not allowed to attend her funeral. God forgive them."

At the announcement at Rath Mor on Tuesday Paul O’Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre said: “It beggars belief that it was in 2003 that we had our first meeting with the Police Ombusdman here in Derry where we lodged a complaint about the actions of the RUC during the arrest of these four individuals.

“It’s 2019. We still don’t have a final report. We understand that there was a delay, an understandable delay when prosecutions were undertaken against two of the police officers involved in their interrogation and that prosecution collapsed for various reasons which the Director of Public Prosecutions should better address.

“We have a draft copy of the Police Ombusdmans investigation, but that’s a draft copy that contains no conclusions. However, the draft copy is interesting because from that we realise that the Police Ombudsman asked for linguistic tests to be carried out by two separate independent linguistics experts who looked at the statements that were still available and there was very limited information.

“In looking at that they came to the conclusion that the language used in the so-called confessions was not the language of the individuals concerned-that it simply did not match.

“There is a banner here which says ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ That not only applies to the actions of the RUC at that time and in particular we would single out the actions of two of the officers involved in the interrogations who are since deceased.

“There were advices sought on how one of them might still be prosecuted while he was still alive. That individual John Gray was responsible for very serious threats being made against family members of the Derry 4 of the most vile nature. He is no longer with us to answer those allegations and that’s part of the problem in this case.

“Added to the issue of justice delayed and justice denied are the actions of the Director of Public Prosecutions at the time, the actions of the RUC at the time and I have to say that I don’t think the men have been dealt with properly by the office of the Police Ombudsman.

“We filed a complaint in 2003 and in 2019 we still don’t have a report. There maybe a point when we get the final Ombudsmans report, we’ll obviously publish that at that time, we are not sure when that will happen yet.”

CAPTION: The 'Derry 4', Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly, Michael Toner and Stephen Crumlish.

More News

Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.

Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.