30 Apr 2012

Raymond McCord Jnr was murdered in 1997 (Photo: Pacemaker)

Evidence provided by a loyalist supergrass could see a breakthrough in the police hunt for the UVF killers of a former RAF member, a court has heard.

Coroner John Leckey has adjourned inquest proceedings into the 1997 death of 22-year-old Raymond McCord Jnr in north Belfast to see if testimony provided by the so-called “assisting offender” will prompt charges.

On Monday, at a preliminary hearing in Belfast, a police lawyer confirmed that the process of interviewing the offender was near to completion.

It is understood he is providing state’s evidence on a range of crimes committed by the notorious UVF gang from north Belfast’s Mount Vernon estate that beat Mr McCord to death and dumped his body in a Newtownabbey quarry.

A lawyer for the McCord family said this could prompt police action in regard to the murder.

On the back of a complaint by the victim’s father, Raymond McCord Snr, an investigation led by former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan was published in 2007.

Mr McCord Snr has led a high-profile campaign for justice ever since the murder almost 15 years ago.

The report revealed large-scale collusion between the gang and the police, which ran agents inside the UVF.

The PSNI’s Operation Stafford is currently probing crimes committed by the gang.

Earlier this year nine men, including alleged gang leader Mark Haddock, were cleared of murdering UDA chief Tommy English after a lengthy trial which saw evidence provided by two other supergrasses heavily criticised by the judge.

At Monday’s hearing, lawyers for Mr McCord’s parents, who were present in court, told Mr Leckey that they wanted to see the police investigation completed before an inquest was heard.

“There’s an assisting offender who is currently involved in a process with the PSNI,” said Paddy Murray, representing Mr McCord’s mother Vivienne.

“I understand that process is nearing completion, if not completed.

“That process could raise very serious issues. There may well be arising from that a criminal process in the future. We understand that investigation is fairly progressed.”

He said Operation Stafford had raised “very serious and complex issues” in regard to the murder.

“Particularly in relation to state agents’ involvement in the death of Mr McCord,” he said.

“From that point of view, it’s necessary that all information is before the coroner in advance of hearing the inquest.”

Richard Ferguson, representing the PSNI, concurred with Mr Murray’s assessment that the process of taking evidence from the assisting offender was nearing completion.

“It’s a live investigation which there are still potentially very interesting lines of enquiry that are ongoing,” he added.

But the lawyer said the offender was being questioned primarily about another matter related to the wider investigation.

He said it was the general position of the police that they would not wish to see an inquest take place before their investigations were complete, because it may prejudice any potential future court proceedings.

Catherine O’Hanlon, representing Mr McCord Snr, said he also wanted the inquest adjourned but she put on record his disappointment that the police had not made more progress.

“He is extremely disappointed that we are here in this position some 14 and a half years after the death,” she said.

“He feels there has been an inadequate explanation given by the police this morning as to why this investigation hasn’t progressed.”

Mr Leckey, Northern Ireland’s senior coroner, said that decades ago the police seemed to be content to let inquests take place before any police investigation but there had been a “sea change” in their attitude.

He noted the potential issue around prejudice but indicated that he did not want to delay inquest proceedings indefinitely, noting that criminal charges may never be brought.

“The problem of course is that may never be achieved and sadly there are a number of deaths where that hasn’t be achieved,” he said.

He said the longer an inquest was delayed, the more risk of the “trail going cold”.

Mr Leckey said he would adjourn proceedings until 7 September, when he hoped the police would be in a position to outline the situation in more clarity.

The police would have to formally apply for an open-ended adjournment until their investigation is complete.

Mr Leckey asked that the senior PSNI detective leading the investigation – Tim Hanley – be present in court for September’s hearing.