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The police ombudsman should probe fresh claims that intelligence officers covertly approached a dissident republican in custody hours before he killed himself, Northern Ireland s senior coroner has said.

John Leckey stressed the need for the watchdog to look into a new allegation levelled in court today by a lawyer representing the family of John Brady, 40, who hanged himself inside Strand Road police station in Londonderry five years ago.

In a separate development solicitor Peter Corrigan also claimed that Mr Brady s relations have been subject to numerous death threats since his suicide in October 2009, making them fearful of attending the scheduled inquest into his death in Belfast next year.

During a preliminary hearing in Belfast Coroners Court, Mr Corrigan said a journalist had informed his legal team that a police source had claimed that two officers from the PSNI s C3 unit - formerly known as Special Branch - had visited Mr Brady on three separate occasions in the custody suite.

That s obviously a major development, the lawyer told the coroner.

But Mr Corrigan said he would not name the journalist in court and conceded he did not know the name of the police source.

Mr Leckey made clear to the lawyer the only way the Police Ombudsman would be able to investigate his claim was if the organisation had the names of the individuals and could interview them.

I don t attach any weight to what I have been told in the absence of the journalist being named and the police officer being named, he said.

We have a journalist who refuses to be named and a police officer, who someone knows who this is and where they live, but I m not told any of this information and I m supposed to accept this as corroboration?

He added: It s all very well for them (the journalist and officer) giving information about this, but it s information that would have to be investigated by the Police Ombudsman in the normal way.

And they can t put up a cloak of anonymity to prevent an investigation. They have to be willing to engage and be interviewed.

Mr Brady, who was jailed during the Troubles for murdering a policeman, had been arrested in Strabane while on parole on suspicion of assault.

Rumours of C3 involvement have led to speculation the republican may have been subjected to a bid to turn him into an informer before he hanged himself in a consultation room.

But the Police Ombudsman has already examined the claims that Mr Brady was approached and has ruled it out.

It found that two intelligence officers did attempt to gain access to him but were turned away by custody staff.

Lawyer for the Ombudsman s Office Seamus McIlroy today told Mr Leckey that an examination of CCTV footage for the entirety of Mr Brady s time in custody showed that the C3 officers did not gain access to him.

He said the two officers had also denied speaking to him when interviewed by Ombudsman investigators.

Mr McIlroy said the ombudsman would robustly and vigorously investigate any new claims but stressed that names would be required.

We do need something to go on to be able to investigate properly what has been alleged, he said.

Mr McIlroy added: If there s any information as to who they are we ll definitely speak to them.

Mr Corrigan indicated that the name of the journalist could potentially be passed to the ombudsman and coroner on a confidential basis.

Mr Leckey said that it was imperative that Mr Corrigan engaged with the Ombudsman as quickly as possible as the inquest was scheduled to commence on February 16.

The inquest is proceeding as arranged and if information is forthcoming to the Police Ombudsman, we are not quite in the middle of October, so there should be plenty of time for the Police Ombudsman to interview those two individuals, he said.

The coroner also said he was amazed the claim was only being heard by the court now after Mr Corrigan revealed that the journalist first made the allegation the day after Mr Brady died.

He told Mr Corrigan: Your engagement with the Police Ombudsman should start immediately.

Earlier the family s solicitor conveyed their safety concerns about the inquest being held in Belfast.

Since Mr Brady s death the family have received numerous death threats in relation to this and they are really concerned about attending in Belfast, he said.

Mr Corrigan said Mr Brady s 70-year-old mother would be prepared to contemplate delaying proceedings if the hearing could be held in Derry.

His mother has said she would be prepared to wait, she has already waited five years, but she would wait to be able to attend a place she feels safe for her and her family, he said.

Mr Leckey said timing was not the issue as court space in Londonderry was never available for inquests.

It just seems to be difficult at any time to list an inquest in Londonderry, it s a very busy court, he said.

The coroner said he was confident Laganside Courts in Belfast had the facilities to ensure that nothing untoward would happen to the family .

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