Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

In a tiny upstairs post office in Co Tyrone, sub-postmistress Deirdre Connolly was asked if she was stealing money for paramilitaries.

It was August 2010 and she was being questioned by two fraud investigators after an audit found that more than £15,000 was missing from the post office branch she was running in a shop in the rural village of Killeter, close to the Donegal border.

The interview took place at the main Omagh sorting office two months after the “discrepancy” was discovered.

She was suspended on the spot; she recalls being repeatedly asked what she had done with the money.

“It was a wee box room and they wouldn’t allow my husband in, he was frogmarched down the stairs on to Omagh main street and the door closed behind him.

The investigator had flown in that morning. This was a taped interview. He kept asking: ‘Have you been approached by paramilitaries? Did you take the money for the paramilitaries?’

“I thought: “Holy sweet Jesus Christ, what’s going on here?’ I was gobsmacked. I had done nothing wrong but I thought: ‘What if this got out?’ I was running my shop in a village with a population of 300 people where everybody knows everybody’s business.”

It would take almost a decade for Connolly and hundreds of other former UK Post Office branch managers to clear their names in a case that has been described as one of worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

More than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were prosecuted between 1999 and 2015, with some jailed for false accounting and theft; many were left bankrupt and there were several suicides.

The scandal resulted from a faulty computer software system called Horizon which made it appear as if money was missing from their Post Office shops.

Connolly, a mother of two, developed epilepsy and became a recluse.

“I was paranoid, I just couldn’t go near the shop. I thought everyone was talking about me, it was devastating.”

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the introduction of an unprecedented law to “swiftly” exonerate and compensate those affected.

While the law will not automatically apply in Northern Ireland or Scotland, UK postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake insisted that Downing Street was “keen” to extend its provisions.

Connolly watched Sunak’s lunchtime announcement on television with other victims and gave it a cautious welcome.

“The first thing I thought was: ‘Where’s Northern Ireland?’ They have to include it. It’s a waiting game, they have to put their words into action. I’m very cautious, as you do be.”

Sunak’s intervention came a week after a powerful ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, was aired and reignited public fury at how victims were treated.

Within days, a petition was set up calling for former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to be stripped of a CBE. The petition received more than a million signatures and Ms Vennells handed the title back on Tuesday.

Connolly was among those who took part in the legal challenge mounted by English sub-postmaster Alan Bates – on whom the drama centred – and contacted him after her sister-in-law spotted an article in a newspaper in 2012.

“When I rang Alan Bates he asked me if the investigators said that I was the only one having problems – that’s what they did, they made you think it was just you. You think you’re going mad.

“The TV programme changed everything; it made people understand what went on.”

While she wasn’t prosecuted, she and her husband Darius “lost everything” and filed for bankruptcy. The couple have been married for over 30 years and thought the village post office would their “forever job” before retirement.

Connolly is part of two WhatsApp groups for victims and is keen for more people in Northern Ireland to come forward. She says there remains a reluctance for some people to speak out due to the stigma.

“You put it away, you put it in a wee box in your head. You close it and you don’t want to open it,” she said.

To date, 23 people have been prosecuted in the North over the past 20 years from when the Horizon accounting system was first installed, resulting in 19 convictions. However, it is estimated many more were affected.

Belfast solicitor Michael Madden is representing 20 victims and said “more and more people are coming through”, with an additional six contacts this week.

“The way the Post Office dealt with the prosecutions and the investigations at the start, it was so insidious; they isolated people, telling them that they were the only ones, knowing that there were hundreds and hundreds of people affected,” he said.

“These were decent and honest working people – the last people you could ever imagine going into a courtroom.”

Connolly and three other victims are planning to attend the ongoing public inquiry into the scandal in London later this month where one of the investigators who interviewed her in the Omagh postal office 14 years ago will appear as a witness.

“My motto since this happened is that you have to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt – so I’ve a new hand to deal with now. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Irish Times