The O’Loan Report: the RUC, Collusion and the Policing Debate, or…never mind the detail, consider the response. January 22, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Republicans, Sinn Féin, Ulster, Unionism.
Call me a cynic, but I chuckled involuntarily when reading on the ITs Breaking News section that “PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde today said Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s report into security force collusion made shocking reading”. “Shocking”, one presumes, in the sense that something is unsurprising and expected.
And yet perhaps Orde is shocked, shocked that such activities continued, at least as far as the scope of the Ombudsmans enquiries as recently as 1997. That’s not ancient history. That’s very recent history, although the date is telling in so far as it marks the point of a change of government in the United Kingdom from Conservative to Labour (and perhaps if I were the Labour Party I might be a tad less circumspect about trumpeting that particular fact at an upcoming election – certainly someone seems to have believed that they had a freer rein under a different political dispensation).
The report is long. The PDF I downloaded from the Office of the Ombudsman runs to 162 pages. I’ve scanned through it, and this is by no means an exhaustive trawl (incidentally, perhaps it’s just my version of Acrobat, but in numbered documents is it so difficult to bookmark individual pages, trying to read it is a messy and frustrating experience).
The details are predictable, senior levels of the RUC are implicated at least indirectly in the death of Raymond McCord Jnr, murdered in 1997 by the UVF. The lack of cooperation by former RUC members, up to the level of assistant chief-constables tells it’s own story. They ‘refused to provide an explanation of Special Branch and CID internal practices during the period in question’.
or as the relevant section puts it:
DIFFICULTIES ENCOUNTERED DURING THIS INVESTIGATION
Lack of Co-operation and Time Delay
8.1 The main difficulty encountered during Operation Ballast has been the refusal of a number of retired RUC / PSNI senior officers to co-operate with this enquiry, despite the fact that the Police Ombudsman took a number of steps to facilitate the needs of these retired officers:
The Executive Summary details the following areas of concern:
9. Intelligence reports and other documents within the RUC and the PSNI, most of which were rated as ‘reliable and probably true’, linked informants, and in particular one man who was a police informant (referred to in this report as Informant 1) to the following ten murders:
• Mr Peter McTasney who died on 24 February 1991;
• Ms Sharon McKenna who died on 17 January 1993;
• Mr Sean McParland who was attacked on 17 February 1994, and died on 25 February 1994;
• Mr Gary Convie who died on 17 May 1994;
• Mr Eamon Fox who died on 17 May 1994, in the same attack as Mr Gary Convie;
• Mr Gerald Brady who died on 17 June 1994;
• Mr Thomas Sheppard who died on 21 March 1996;
• Mr John Harbinson who died on 18 May 1997;
• Mr Raymond McCord Junior who died on 09 November 1997
• Mr Thomas English who died on 31 October 2000.
The Police Ombudsman’s investigators also identified less significant police intelligence implicating Informant 1 in 5 other murders. For some of these murders, there is generally only one piece of intelligence, which police have not rated as reliable.
Intelligence was also found linking police informants, and in particular Informant 1, to ten attempted murders between 1989 and 2002.
Intelligence was also found which implicated police informants, and in particular, Informant 1, in a significant number of crimes in respect of which no action or insufficient action was taken:
• Armed robbery;
• Assault and Grievous Bodily Harm;
• Punishment shootings and attacks;
• Possession of munitions;
• Criminal Damage;
• Drug dealing;
• Conspiracy to murder;
• Threats to kill.
One piece is particularly striking, a ‘foiled’ bombing campaign by the UVF in Dublin in 1996 and attacks on SF offices in Monaghan by the UVF using explosives in 1997 (note that Monaghan is in the RoI) elicit this conclusion:
24.10 The only official records, apart from the reward application, which show the explosives were used in Monaghan is in a confidential document prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions for Informant 1s arrest on another matter. It records that he thwarted ‘a bombing campaign in the Republic of Ireland’ on 25 November 1996 and that he thwarted ‘a bomb attack in Monaghan’ on 3 March 1997. The document does not mention that Informant 1 had a role in the attack and that the explosives were returned to him by police.
24.11 There is no evidence that Special Branch informed the Garda Siochana at any stage of this bombing attempt, or of who was behind it. The Garda Commissioner has confirmed to the Police Ombudsman that Special Branch did not provide them with any intelligence about this incident. The Police Ombudsman wrote to the Chief Constable asking him to pass on this intelligence.
The conclusion is stunning:
32.1 In his Stevens 3 Report Lord Stevens defined collusion as “the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, the extreme of agents being involved in murder..”
32.2 In his reports on his Collusion Enquiries into the deaths of Patrick Finucane, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson, and Billy Wright, Judge Cory states that:
“the definition of collusion must be reasonably broad… That is to say that army and police forces must not act collusively by ignoring or turning a blind eye to the wrongful acts of their servants of agents, or supplying information to assist them in their wrongful acts, or encouraging them to commit wrongful acts. Any lesser definition would have the effect of condoning or even encouraging state involvement in crimes, thereby shattering all public confidence in these important agencies.””
32.3 The Police Ombudsman has used these definitions for the purposes of examining whether collusion has been identified in the course of this investigation.
32.4 In the absence of any justifiable reason why officers behaved as they did, the Police Ombudsman has identified from police documentation, records and interviews, collusion in the following areas:
• The failure to arrest informants for crimes to which those informants had allegedly confessed, or to treat such informants as suspects for crime;
• By creating interview notes which were deliberately misleading; by failing to record and maintain original interview notes and by failing to record notes of meetings with informants;
• The failure to deal properly with information received from informants, so that informants were able to avoid investigation and detection for crime;
• By arresting informants suspected of murder then subjecting them to lengthy sham interviews by their own handlers at which they were not challenged and then releasing them on the authorisation of the handler;
• By not recording in investigation papers the fact that an informant was suspected of a crime despite the fact that he had been arrested and interviewed for that crime;
• By failing to take steps to hinder an attempted bombing by the establishment of an operation either to disrupt or arrest the alleged perpetrators whose names were known to Special Branch;
• By giving instructions to junior officers that records should not be completed, and that there should be no record of the incident concerned;
• By ensuring the absence of any official record linking a Special Branch informant to the possession of explosives which may, and were thought, according to private police records, to have been used in a particular crime;
• By withholding information from CID that the UVF had sanctioned an attack;
• By concealing from CID intelligence that named persons, including an informant or informants, had been involved in particular crimes;
• By withholding information about the location to which a group of murder suspects had allegedly fled after a murder;
• By the concealment on a number of occasions of intelligence indicating that up to three informants had been engaged together in murders and a particular crime or crimes;
• By routinely destroying all Tasking and Co-ordinating Group original documentary records so as to conceal an informant’s involvement in crime;
• By destroying or losing forensic exhibits such as metal bars and tape lifts;
• By not requiring appropriate forensic analysis to be carried out on items submitted to the Forensic Science Service Laboratory;
• by blocking the searches of a police informant’s home and of another location, including an alleged UVF arms dump;
• By not questioning informants about their activities and continuing to employ informants without risk assessing their continued use as informants;
• By finding munitions at an informant’s home and releasing him without charge;
• By not informing local police of an anticipated attack, and not taking any action to prevent the attack;
• By not using the available evidence and intelligence to detect a crime and to link the investigation of crimes in which an informant was a suspect;
• By some Special Branch officers deliberately disregarding a very significant amount of intelligence about informant involvement in drug dealing in Larne, and North Belfast and in punishment attacks linked to drug dealing from 1994 onwards;
• By continuing to employ as informants people suspected of involvement in the most serious crime without assessing the attendant risks or their suitability as informants;
• By not acting on witness and other evidence received in particular crimes when the suspect was an informant;
• By not considering or attempting to conduct identification processes when there was particular evidence from witnesses about a criminal’s appearance;
• By providing at least four misleading and inaccurate confidential documents for possible consideration by the court in relation to four separate incidents and the cases resulting from them, where those documents had the effect of protecting an informant;
• By not informing the Director of Public Prosecutions that an informant was a suspect in a crime in respect of which an investigation file was submitted to the Director;
• By their failure to maintain the record of intelligence which was the basis for applications for extensions of time in detention to the Secretary of State;
• By withholding intelligence from police colleagues including the names of alleged suspects which could have been used to attempt to prevent and to detect crime;
• By the practice of Special Branch not using and following the practice of authorisation of participating informants;
• By completing false and misleading authorisations and reviews of informants for the purposes of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act;
• By cancelling the wanted status of murder suspects “because of lack of resources” and doing nothing further about these suspects;
• This investigation has examined the activities of police officers responsible for informants over a period of twelve years. On only one occasion have PSNI provided any document indicative of consideration of the termination of the relationship which Special Branch had with any of these informants, despite the extent of the alleged involvement of these informants in the most serious of crimes.
But what is more significant in one key respect is the response (apart from that of Hugh “shocked” Orde). Immediately Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have described the findings as ‘deeply disturbing’. And Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern noted that “Who now could doubt that there was a need for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland, as called for in the Good Friday Agreement and brought about through the implementation of the Patten Report? By failing to protect its citizens in such a way, the State failed in one of its primary duties”, while Northern Secretary Peter Hain said that “These things – murder, collusion, cover-up, obstruction of investigations – could not happen today, not least because of the accountability mechanisms that have been put in place over recent years…There are all sorts of opportunities for prosecutions to follow…The fact that some retired police officers obstructed the investigation and refused to co-operate with the Police Ombudsman is very serious in itself”.
As for Sinn Féin, Martin McGuinness suggested that it would make a powerful contribution to the policing debate and “It raises the question about how many more areas were affected, and how many more people were murdered by elements effectively within the RUC and British intelligence”.
Interesting. Everyone is largely containing this to the past, i.e. drawing a line between then and today, while also, as in the case of Hain, opening the way towards further action. The implications are remarkable. Assistant Chief Constables refusing to engage with an enquiry is suggestive. Collusion proven is a serious step forward and one which potentially destabilises elements within Unionism, indeed one wonders whether the recent backing away from the reinstatement of the RUC by the DUP and the wilder fringes of the UUP is indicative of a recognition that that particular game is up.
But overall it is a good days work. And surely, surely the timing cannot be coincidental because if one casts one eye to Appendix A, what does one read but the following:
CHANGES TO PSNI WORKING PRACTICES SINCE 2003
1. In the early stages of Operation Ballast, the Police Ombudsman made it clear to the Chief Constable that she had serious concerns about the way PSNI had handled and managed paramilitary informants since the early 1990s. The Police Ombudsman informed the Chief Constable that as a result of these concerns she was conducting a criminal investigation into the actions of a number of Special Branch officers.
2. As a result of these pressures from the Police Ombudsman, along with the Stevens III recommendations and a report by the Surveillance Commissioner, PSNI have radically changed their working practices since 2003.
3. The main change has been structural, in that Special Branch is no longer a separate part of the PSNI, but has been integrated into the broader Crime Operations Department.
41. The Police Ombudsman hopes that these new measures by PSNI will prevent the failures identified by Operation Ballast from re-occurring in the future.
Things have changed, but it’s the enormous rapidity which is so striking. 2003? That’s barely yesterday, and it demonstrates the need for serious engagement with policing. An engagement that has to be by policing as much as by the community at large. I’ve argued here that SF should sign up, indeed I have another post in the works on just that topic. But this is desperately important, because it undercuts the ground from the DUP over policing. The RUC, whatever the nature of individual officers within it who took an honourable course, was an institution that was seriously compromised, that had to be replaced. The PSNI is a clear step in the right direction. But for any political party to pretend that there is a high ground held in the past, that if only for Republicans all would be normal, is delusion.
That’s something Republicans should consider carefully. This report makes their task paradoxically both easier and more difficult. More difficult because there will be many who see this as the alpha and omega of their justifications for not engaging, easier because it removes a central plank of the DUPs arguments relating to policing.
The next couple of weeks will be interesting. As will the response from Unionism (bar the risible response from Jimmy Spratt).
Edited in later by me: Worth noting also the extremely dignified approach of Raymond McCord Snr. this evening, who without his tenacity this grim truth wouldn’t have surfaced. For his sake, that of his son and the other victims, and arguably many others whose stories haven’t been told so far a public enquiry seems a minimal demand. However, it appears that at this point that is unlikely.
By the by, isn’t it moving towards the time when we appoint a Minister for Northern Ireland/the North, as distinct from the current situation where the DFA has authority (or rather could not the DFA retain authority but have a seperate Minister appointed, or if we want to be particularly contorted why not have Minister for Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland – I’m aware of the Anglo-Irish division but that’s not quite the same thing really)? If it’s Plan B we’ll need one, and if it’s the GFA yep, we’re going to need one too.