Jonty Brown left the RUC in 2001. He was no stranger to death threats from both loyalists and republicans. His home was attacked by Loyalist paramilitaries. In retirement, he is a seasoned observer of the police force that took over from the RUC, the PSNI. He is dismayed at the continuing violence from republicans and at the loss of police lives in recent times. In this article Jonty Brown looks back at the kind of personal protection provided during his service and compares that with what is on offer for the young officers of today as they stand together in the face of the growing and ever more deadly threat from terrorists deaf to the calls for peace.
Since my retirement in April 2001 following 30 years of service in the Royal Ulster Constabulary , I have watched with interest the evolvement of the different dissident Republican groupings and the insidious escalation of their degree of accomplishment of evil deeds designed to draw us all back into that awful conflict that so devastated our respective communities both Protestant and Catholic alike.
I was particularly concerned at the personal suffering and physical devastation caused to Constable Paeder Heffron in January 2010 due to an under car booby trap device planted by Republicans who hated everything that Constable Heffron had very bravely gone forward to represent. He was not just a member of the PSNI. He was a Roman Catholic, Irish speaking, GAA playing member of the PSNI. One of a whole new breed of young catholic Police Officers who had stepped up to the plate.
To any right thinking , fair minded citizen he was a hero, certainly in his own locality he was much respected and would be a role model for any other young Catholics, men and woman alike, who might have been considering following his example. Commendable, you might think, but it was for exactly those reasons that Constable Heffron was targeted for murder by the dissidents. They cannot risk having law enforcement officers living in their midst. Apart from the very unwelcome eyes and ears of police officers, you have the added disadvantage of their friends and relatives “informing” on them to these new and freely accessible police officers. This does not auger well for dissidents trying to blend in and move about in formerly exclusively Republican strongholds.
The attack on Constable Heffron was despicable. The evil intent of the dissidents was to send a clear signal to any other Catholic thinking of going down the same route as Constable Heffron, that if they did so they would be targeted for murder. Fear and intimidation, their key weapon in deterring Catholics from coming forward in any great numbers. The fact that Constable Heffron survived the murder bid is even a plus for the dissidents. He is a daily living reminder of the human cost that they will exact on others who join the PSNI.
And yet, even the horrific attack on Constable Heffron and the earlier murder of Constable Carroll on March 9th 2010 in Lurgan has not deterred brave young Catholics from coming forward in their droves. I salute them. One such young man was Constable Ronan Kerr.
Following the attack on Constable Heffron and the nature of the explosive device used to perpetrate it, I fully expected the PSNI to immediately re-introduce the electronic measures readily available on the open market, that could be very quickly obtained and deployed to the personal vehicles of any threatened PSNI officers. Such devices were fitted to our personal cars as far back as the early 1980’s. these devices were sold as under car booby trap detectors and were as much a deterrent to the provisional IRA murder squads as they were to give us peace of mind.
At the time of installation we were told that each device cost hundreds of pounds plus the additional cost of fitting. Nonetheless the Police Authority of the day provided the cash and UCBT kits were rolled out very quickly indeed. I was stationed in Andersonstown at that time and I was very grateful for the provision of the equipment. We had little plastic cards the shape and size of credit cards that was an aide memoir as to how the system functioned and what each warning light flashing actually meant.
These devises remained on our vehicles until well after the Provisional Ira ceasefire came into effect. They were then withdrawn from our vehicles.
I had expected to PSNI to begin to roll out these devises to threatened PSNI Officers immediately following the tragic case of Constable Heffron. It appears I was wrong.
Think how I felt when I heard of the callous murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, a young and brave new recruit to the PSNI. I listened in sadness as his mother spoke eloquently and poignantly about Ronan and the devastation his loss has caused their family, their community and his friends and PSNI colleagues.
The method used to murder Constable Kerr was the very same tried and trusted under car booby trap [UCBT]. This was a needless loss bearing in mind it came a year and four months after the attempt on Constable Heffron’s life in January 2010.
Had the PSNI acted immediately then the murder of Ronan Kerr could well have been prevented. How many more PSNI Officers will be murdered or maimed before the authorities move to close that very vulnerable gap.
Time and technology have moved on since the 1980’s and although the old PIRA UCBT device remains basically the same the UCBT device has greatly improved thus hiking up the cost of each unit from hundreds of pounds to a few thousand pounds each. Costly, yes, but not prohibitively so. Buying these devices in the thousands would bring great discounts and the provision of them would bring peace of mind to PSNI officers. What price do you put on the saving of a life. Public knowledge of there deployment will act as a deterrent to those Republicans skulking to plant them in the dead of night.
It is too late for Ronan Kerr but it must not be delayed in any other case. It is all very well to appeal for information from the general public to facilitate the detection of those responsible but we should also be doing all that is necessary using available technology that would or could prevent any other tragic events from occurring.
The large arsenal of weapons, explosives, timing devices and vehicles recovered by the PSNI on April 6th 2011 was a welcome development and those responsible for it’s discovery are to be congratulated. It is a positive development.
I listened in horror as I heard the news reports, 4 AK47’s rifles, vehicles, a quantity of semtex and a number of timer power units, similar to the one used in the UCBT that killed Constable Kerr, not far from that particular lock up premises. With my experience of Security Services skulduggery I have one question for those who suddenly discovered the it whilst the worlds media spotlight poured pressure upon the PSNI to get a result for the murder of Constable Kerr.
Just how long had they known of the existence of that particular little arms and explosives factory? Was it days? Months? How long had they been monitoring the coming and goings of those dissident republicans using the lock-up? What devices had they deployed and what evidence gained that will never be made available to the detectives now working so hard to catch those responsible for the murder.
If they had moved to recover those items before Constable Kerr’s murder could they have prevented the tragedy ?
Similar cases in the past in the history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are well documented. Explosives moving from PIRA hides that were under technical surveillance were then used in the murder of RUC Officers. As the security services play cloak and dagger games the citizens of Ulster and Police Officers are left to suffer the consequences of this foolish and unnecessary need to play “spying games”.
I could be wrong of course. I do hope that I am. It may well be that the PSNI acted immediately on a tip from a member of the public. If that is the case then I am glad to be wrong.
So what makes me such a cynic? Well for a start when I heard of the find and the circumstances of it my mind raced back to Monday 28th September 1981, when I was out on the ground in Andersonstown estate assisting in the investigation into the murder of Constable Alex Beck.
Alex had been the driver of an RUC armoured Landover moving slowly to negotiate ramps at the top of Suffolk Road when they came under attack by a PIRA unit using a RPG7 rocket launcher and high velocity rifles. The rocket launcher warhead entered the drivers door, went through Constable Beck’s torso and exited taking the arms of Constable Patterson, who was in the front passenger seat.. The PIRA unit then immediately withdrew.
Only a matter of hours after that attack I was directed to attend Rosnareen Park, Andersonstown with other police. When I arrived, I was amazed to see a Special Branch Detective Superintendent and others standing outside in shirt suit and tie. He told me that the RPG7 used in the murder of Constable Beck was in a PIRA hide below the downstairs toilet. The house was furnished and stocked with a few provisions. It transpired that the elderly Housing Executive tenant had died a long time since and that the Provisional’s had been using it as a safe house. The military search team recovered the RPG7 rocket launcher in a hide below that toilet.
The find, again though very welcome, raised more questions than it answered. How long had our Special Branch colleagues/Security Services known about the hide and could they have seized the RPG and saved the life of Alex Beck and severe injury to his colleague. There was almost a mutiny on that day and on the days that followed. Police Officers from Springfield Road RUC Station threatened not to leave the Station until they got answers. This is one case used to illustrate the reason for my anger and frustration.
Let there be no more Ronan Kerr’s. Let the spectacle of a policeman getting down on his knees to give his car a cursory search for a UCBT be a thing of the past. The technology to save lives is there and available. Let the cost not be a prohibitive factor. Give our brave young police officers the means they need to protect themselves from this evil and ever more present dissident threat.