PSNI made ‘significant failings’ in investigating 2002 sectarian murder
The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has found there were “significant failings” in the PSNI investigation into the murder of Gerard Lawlor in 2002, but no evidence police could have prevented his murder nor of collusive behaviours.
Mr Lawlor, 19, was the last of a number of Catholic men attacked by loyalist paramilitaries in north Belfast on the night of 21–22 July 2022. He was murdered while walking home along the Floral Road shortly after midnight on the 22nd.
Earlier on the 21st, a Protestant man was shot while standing outside a house at Glenbryn Park, near the peace line. Although he was seriously injured, he survived.
Later in the evening, there were four further gun attacks within a relatively small geographical area of north Belfast. On each occasion the victims were members of the Catholic community, leading the police to believe that the attacks were in retaliation for the attempted murder of the man at Glenbryn Park.
The sixth attack resulted in the murder of Mr Lawlor, for which loyalist paramilitaries claimed responsibility. He was 19 years old and had a partner and 18-month-old son.
Mr Lawlor’s family, represented by Niall Murphy of KRW Law, had raised concerns with the Police Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, about the preventability of the murder, protection of informants and allegations of collusion, as well as how the PSNI investigation was conducted.
Commenting on the outcome of her investigation, Mrs Anderson said: “Sectarian tensions were high in north Belfast on the night of 21–22 July 2002 and although police resources were undoubtedly stretched, police and military patrols continued in interface areas that evening and both police and military vehicle check points were also in place.
“My investigation found no evidence that police had prior information that Gerard Lawlor was going to be targeted, or that Loyalist paramilitaries were planning an attack in the Floral Road area and I do not believe that an opportunity existed for police to prevent the murder.”
She continued: “Initial police actions following the murder were conducted in a thorough and competent manner. Scenes were secured and forensically examined and police conducted extensive witness and CCTV enquiries in the vicinity of the murder scene, in addition to the route that Mr Lawlor took upon leaving the Bellevue Arms, and potential routes taken by the murderers before, and after, the attack.
“However, my investigation did find evidence of significant failings in aspects of the police investigation and, therefore, I have concluded that a number of the complaints, allegations and concerns made by the family about police actions and omissions are legitimate and justified.”
The Lawlor family’s solicitor said they continue to believe that there is evidence of collusion in the murder investigation. An inquest which was delayed during the Ombudsman’s investigation will now go ahead.
Commenting on the Ombudsman’s report, PSNI detective chief superintendent Ian Saunders, head of legacy and disclosure, said: “I recognise the continued pain and suffering felt by the family of Gerard Lawlor. Their suffering does not fade and my thoughts are with them today.
“We note the comments made by the Police Ombudsman and acknowledge her findings around the original investigation into Gerard’s murder on 22nd July 2002. We will now take time to carefully consider this report and its findings.
“Gerard’s murder currently sits within the caseload of Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) for future review in accordance with LIB’s Case Sequencing Model.”