Northern Ireland

PSNI failure to pass on information about Jim Donegan may have contributed to his death, court finds

Jim Donegan who was shot dead outside a west Belfast school.
Jim Donegan who was shot dead outside a west Belfast school.

A failure by police to pass on specific details about a dissident republican murder threat may have contributed to the death of a man shot dead outside his son’s school in west Belfast, a High Court judge has ruled.

Madam Justice Quinlivan identified negligence around the processing of intelligence received months before Jim Donegan was gunned down in December 2018.

Inaction in dealing with information about the location for an attack and the target’s vehicle meant there was a failure to warn Mr Donegan of the danger of being in that area, the judge found.

Backing a challenge by the victim’s family on Tuesday, she said: “The specificity of that threat may have caused Mr Donegan to change his pattern of behaviour, specifically in relation to collecting his son from school, and may have saved his life.”

Madam Justice Quinlivan also held that a senior PSNI commander was wrong in deciding not to refer the conduct of any individual officer to the Police Ombudsman.

Jim Donegan was shot dead in west Belfast in December 2018
Jim Donegan was shot dead in west Belfast in December 2018

Mr Donegan, 43, was shot dead in his Porsche car as he waited for one of his children outside St Mary's Christian Brothers School on the Glen Road. No one has yet been charged with the murder.

Although the Ombudsman is investigating the PSNI’s handling of a potential threat against Mr Donegan, legal action centred on the route taken to notify the watchdog.

Lawyers representing an older son of the victim, Cris Donegan, claimed the Chief Constable was under a statutory duty to make a referral if it appears an officer's conduct may have resulted in someone's death, or could merit disciplinary proceedings.

It emerged that in June 2018, police received information that dissident republicans intended to target an unnamed man they believed to be involved in the drugs trade, who drove a Range Rover and regularly collected a child from school on the Glen Road.

Mr Donegan picked up his son from St Mary’s every Tuesday and Thursday.

He had previously driven a Range Rover and kept the same registration number for his Porsche.

Within days of receiving the information, police did inform Mr Donegan that he was under threat from dissident republicans.

However, no specific details about the vehicle or the school were included in the warning.

The court heard PSNI officers submitted an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) to identify any cars regularly on the Glen Road for an intelligence document.

A list of potential vehicles was compiled, including one with a registration linked to the victim and which ultimately matched the plates on his Porsche at the murder scene.

But according to police, the link to Mr Donegan was not made because of how the research task had been initially entered into the computer system.

Two possible explanations were offered: either the ANPR document was incorrectly processed to the intelligence hub, or else it had been received but never actioned.

With a preliminary view formed that the first option was more likely, former Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin had to decide whether to declare a critical incident and refer the matter to the Ombudsman.

He concluded that the tests under Section 55 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 were not met - there was nothing to suggest any officer’s conduct may have resulted in Mr Donegan’s death or behaviour to justify disciplinary proceedings.

Despite forming the view there was no legal obligation, DCC Martin determined that the watchdog should nevertheless be urgently notified due to the public interest in investigating the circumstances.  

The Donegan family and the Ombudsman both contended police should have referred the case under the terms of the Act.

With no allegations of criminal conduct by a PSNI officer, the dispute was instead over any behaviour potentially justifying disciplinary proceedings.

Ruling on the challenge, Madam Justice Quinlivan was not satisfied that any acts or omissions by police, as understood by the commander when he made his decision, could have resulted in Mr Donegan’s killing.

But she held that the “alternative explanations as to how the death threat was ultimately not conveyed to Mr Donegan, represented conduct which may have ‘contributed’ to the deceased’s death”. 

The judge added: “It appears to me that the consequence of inaction in relation to that particular death threat meant that there was a failure to warn Mr Donegan of the risk to his life associated with collecting his son from school.”

The judge added: “It is my conclusion that DCC Martin ought to have referred this case to the Ombudsman under section 55(4).”