‘Police failures led to gun murder’

John and Sharon Lawlor, the parents of Gerard Lawlor
John and Sharon Lawlor, the parents of Gerard Lawlor

Systematic and repeated failures by the PSNI led to the murder of a Catholic teenager in north Belfast, a new probe into the shooting has claimed.

A panel of legal and academic professionals that examined evidence relating to the loyalist killing of 19-year-old Gerard Lawlor in 2002 insisted it could have been prevented if police officers had done their job properly.

The experts conducted a so-called ‘community inquiry’ into the killing - an exercise commissioned by the Lawlor family’s legal representatives.

The findings have prompted the teenager’s parents John and Sharon to demand a fresh police investigation.

Prior to the publication of the inquiry, the Police Ombudsman Office had been examining the claims of police failures.

The panel said police did not do enough in response to a series of murder bids by loyalists in the same area in the hours before Mr Lawlor was gunned down.

It claimed serious deficiencies in the subsequent investigation of the crime, namely failures to interview potential witnesses and suspects and take appropriate forensic measures, amounted to collusion.

The sectarian murder by the UDA was one of the first investigated by the new look Police Service of Northern Ireland, which had replaced the old Royal Ulster Constabulary months earlier.

The panel claimed the Lawlor investigation was a litmus test for the PSNI to see if policing had changed in Northern Ireland and said it was a test it “demonstrably failed”.

The young father-of-one was shot dead just after midnight on July 22 2002 as he walked home along the Floral Road in Glengormley after a night out.

Two men on a motorbike pulled up beside the gaelic footballer and shot him three times. No-one has ever been brought to justice for the killing.

Catholics had been targeted in four other random attacks in the two hours prior to the murder - a spree apparently sparked after an attack on a Protestant man earlier on the evening of July 21.

The inquiry team claimed that police did not “lift one finger” to prevent the escalating series of incidents, such as mount road blocks.

“By failing to look at the overall picture of what was happening that night, they failed to treat it for what it was: a loyalist rampage hell-bent on killing Catholics, or, to use the police’s own term, a major incident,” the report found.

Gerard’s father John said the family felt it had no other option but to pursue a community inquiry because they were not getting answers from the state.

“It’s up to the police now to review the case or open it up as a new investigation,” he said.

Mr Lawlor said he retained hope that justice would be done.

“You have to have belief in the system - that’s the whole point of having one rule of law,” he said.

The teenager’s mother Sharon said the lack of convictions was a source of great anger.

“As the years go on you build up anger through pure frustrations and you get to this stage you are driven by it,” she said.

“Everybody seems to know who these people are, people know what happened but the PSNI and the (Police) Ombudsman, they don’t seem to be getting the whole story that everyone in the street seems to be getting and that frustrates me big time.”

She described her son as a “big, happy-go-lucky fella”.

“He loved life, loved everything, loved his son who was only one and a half when he died,” she said.

“He had a lot to live for. He was just beginning his life really, just beginning.”

The report was compiled by Jane Winter, the director of British Irish Rights Watch, Professor Bill Rolston, director of the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster, and Gemma McKeown, a solicitor for the Committee on the Administration for Justice (CAJ).

Their report was launched at the offices of the CAJ in Belfast this morning.

Catholic men targeted on the same night as Mr Lawlor’s murder, who gave evidence to the inquiry, attended the event along with the teenager’s family.

Among them was Ryan Corbett, who was standing outside a bar when a man on a motorbike attempted to shoot him but the gun jammed, and Jason O’Halloran, who around half an hour later was seriously injured after being shot three times.

Report author Ms Winter said the onus was now on the state to act.

“This is not the first independent community inquiry there has been. There have been three or four actually, and most of them have actually produced some movement, which is why I agreed to chair it,” she said.

“All three of us on the panel came to it completely independently, we did not know the Lawlor family, we had no agenda, we just looked at the vast volume of documentation we were given and then heard from the witnesses, particularly the people who had been attacked previously to Gerard Lawlor, and came to our own conclusions. And we hope that the authorities will take that seriously.”

Sinn Fein North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly said the police had to answer the legitimate questions raised by the report.

“This was the first inquiry of the PSNI so people did expect a new process based on the law to have taken place and in this case it didn’t happen,” he said.

In response to the report, a PSNI spokesman said: “The investigation into the murder of Gerard Lawlor has been reviewed by the PSNI Serious Crime Review Team and is currently the subject of a PONI (Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland) investigation and, as such, it would be inappropriate to comment.”

He appealed for anyone with information about the murder to come forward to police.