The state and Northern Ireland’s past

Special branch secrets /

A BRITISH Government minister stood up in the House of Commons at Westminster in October and admitted that the British State colluded with Loyalist gunmen in the murder of a Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

No doubt a chilling moment of truth delivered by Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson from the Dispatch Box in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ which was overshadowed at the time by the Finucane family’s angry departure from their Downing Street meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.

In the House of Commons, Mr Paterson made it clear he was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister and looking on from the sidelines, former Policing Board vice-chairman Denis Bradley recalls what he describes as a muted response to a startling admission.

“The British Prime Minister, in public, admitted to a criminal action on behalf of his predecessors and everyone rubs their beard,” he told the Detail.

“The question is, is collusion ever going to be investigated because it doesn’t look to me at the moment as if it ever is.”

The British government admission and apology on that October day when they told Geraldine Finucane and her family that there was to be no inquiry into her husband’s killing was misguided if they hoped it would silence the clamour for more precise information about who in government had knowledge of collusion.

It is not enough to simply put up their hands to admit criminality and hope campaigners representing families who lost loved ones to murder involving British agents on both sides of the conflict – be it Freddie Scappaticci on the Republican side or Mark Haddock on the Loyalist side.

Both were paid agents of the State – protected species and who were both involved in all kinds of criminality, including murder. And, of course, there were hundreds of them passing on information to the security services.

Mark Thompson from Relatives for Justice campaigns for the truth about the ‘secret war’ and he says the truth applies to both sides of the divide.

“Equally we need the truth about Freddie Scappaticci as we do about Brian Nelson,” he told The Detail, “we will have no double standards on that. Yes both families affected or alleged to be effected by his role equally need this matter dealt with.”

He points out that the issue of suspected collusion arises almost on a daily basis. “It is out there if you pick up the papers in the media if you follow the stories,” he said. “It is every day – it is Claudy, it is Kingsmills, Loughinisland, Ballymurphy, New Lodge 6 – it is Pat Finucane, it is Rosemary Nelson, it is Billy Wright. You know we could go on and on and on…it’s there.”

Retired Canadian judge Peter Cory and former leading British policeman Lord Stevens have already implicated the State and its agents in collusion with paramilitaries in murder.

Now Relatives for Justice is campaigning for access to the chain of British command that knew about intelligence agents whether handled by Special Branch or MI5.

Mark Thompson wants to know which State officials charged with protecting the integrity of the State actually turned a blind eye to murder.

To him it is a question of who is culpable. Agents were a dime a dozen, he said, before asking who funded and resourced the intelligence gathering.

He went on: “This was structured and the nature of that structure had to be approved, had to be planned and had to be resourced. And when we start going after agent handlers what we do is very quickly go up that food chain to the people who were part of that process.

“And ultimately now the objective is to protect those agent handlers to prevent that from happening. Sacrifice the loyalists in the dock and keep the immunity and the impunity a live issue for the people who were employed by the State and paid by the State to provide a service protecting the community when in fact they were doing quite the opposite.”

The government’s difficulties in dealing with collusion date back to the beginning of the conflict. But they were certainly compounded in 2007 when the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Nuala O’Loan, presented the world with her damning report into the Mount Vernon UVF gang led by police agent Mark Haddock. Agent Roxy as he was known to his police handlers had been, she reported, involved in at least 10 murders and possibly another five as well.

Bawnmore resident John Flynn met Agent Roxy close up and personal one night in 1992 when the police agent pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t fire and John Flynn wrestled with Mark Haddock for control of the weapon. He won. Agent Roxy left the scene minus his UVF gun.

Mark Haddock appeared to enjoy special branch protection

Mark Haddock appeared to enjoy special branch protection

And it didn’t end there for John Flynn. Five years later UVF commander Gary Haggarty used his own car in a botched attempt to blow John Flynn to smithereens. The bomb was placed but the bombers were noticed and chased from the estate to the waiting Haggerty.

John Flynn may be unique in that he survived two murder bids by two agents of the State. But whilst he only had suspicions before Nuala O’Loan’s Operation Ballast report was published, she left no one in any doubt that Mount Vernon UVF literally got away with murder.

Mr Flynn told The Detail about the day he listened to Mrs O’Loan’s revealing her report: “I was really devastated when I heard it because nobody actually told me who was responsible for the incident in ‘92 and the incident in ’97. The RUC never came to tell me how any investigating was going. Nothing, they told me absolutely nothing. And then all of a sudden out of the blue she produces this report.”

But like many others visited by the dark shadow of the Mount Vernon UVF during a campaign of murder that left 20 grieving families, John Flynn has been left devastated by the State’s failure to honour the promise it made in the aftermath of the O’Loan report.

His solicitor is Kevin Winters. Mr Winters told The Detail: “The position as I understand it is that Nuala O’Loan’s, in my view, groundbreaking investigation uncovered allegations of collusion involving paramilitaries and the security forces. Pursuant to that there was a requirement on the part of the investigative authorities to commence a meaningful investigation into those allegations of collusion.”

At the time, the then Chief Constable Hugh Orde accepted the findings of the O’Loan report’s recommendation 34.1 which reads:

“This investigation has shown that within the UVF in North Belfast and Newtownabbey there was a network of informants, some of whom held senior positions. There should be a thorough investigation of all crimes whith which those informants have been associated, in the course of which PSNI should re-interview the Secial Branch handlers and controllers who are responsible for them. These officers may have further information about the informants’ criminal offences, which has not been officially documented. Any indication of criminal behaviour by a serving or retired officer which emerges in the course of the PSNI investigations which are initiated, following this Report by the Police Ombudsman, should be referred to the Police Ombudsman for investigation.”

The O’Loan report began after a complaint to her by Raymond McCord that his son was murdered on the orders of UVF leader and police agent Mark Haddock.

Hugh Orde’s response was unequivocal :

“This recommendation is accepted and its implementation is already underway. The Historical Enquiries Team became operational in January 2006. The McCord case was one of the first cases to be given to HET to re-examine, at the direction of the Chief Constable. (This was under one of the exemption criteria from the normal chronological process, as a matter of serious public interest). When HET examines a case, it also looks at others linked to it. The McCord case is one of those examined in this report, and is linked to a number of other incidents. HET will be undertaking a thorough re-examination of these cases contemporaneously because of linking factors. The HET has a good relationship with the Officer of the Police Ombudsman, including regular meetings between senior colleagues. A protocol exists for the referral or relevant matters to the Office of the Police Ombudsman from HET if investigations uncover evidence that points to the involvement of police officers in serious crime.”

So far, so good, according to campaigning solicitor Kevin Winters. But then: “There was something of a convoluted history of this situation in that it was left to the Chief Constable who in turn referred it , quite understandably in my view, to the HET. They dealt with the matter and had commenced a significant investigation and then at a later stage it was transferred from them to a particular section of the PSNI.”

And the fact that the PSNI is currently in charge of the case and has been for some time has upset the families according to John Flynn.

He thinks the decision to remove the HET was a retrograde step: “I think the HET was about to expose things and what they were…maybe gonna interview ex-RUC in relation to this here. Maybe arrest them…I don’t know. But they were about to do something. And then they [PSNI] stepped in and just took it off them.”

As far as Kevin Winters is concerned there’s good reason to be concerned. His view is that the transfer from HET to PSNI caused a “high degree of anxiety and concern on the part of the families who had already been through a significant and trying ordeal over a number of years in terms of trying to get information, the background to the killing of their loved ones.”

He added: “And the central tenet running through the Operation Ballast report rested on allegations of collusion involving members of the security forces so there was a certain perception on one view that it didn’t add up or it didn’t square at all with many families to find that there was a certain assessment that that essentially was the police investigating the police.”

Mark Thompson says he was deeply disturbed by the responses he got at a meeting with a senior officer from the PSNI’s C2 Serious Crime Unit. Operation Ballast became Operation Stafford when the PSNI took it over.

Mr Thompson says he accompanied a number of families to a meeting with Garry Eaton, the then PSNI’s Senior Investigating Officer [SIO] involved in the Operation Stafford investigation.

He told the Detail: “During the course of a 20-minute private meeting with the family who lost two relatives to this gang he told myself and the family he was not interesting in examining the role of police officers whatsoever.

“The conversation came around to us putting to him that if he came across a police officer that was committing a criminal act, engaged in wrong-doing or had information that could have prevented the loss of life and didn’t act or protected a person who was an agent involved in murder, what would he do with that?

“And he stopped us and said ‘I want to make it crystal clear I am not looking at police officers, I am only interested in terrorism and criminality.’”

The PSNI told The Detail that no one was above the law but pointed out that the police did not investigate police – that was the job of the Police Ombudsman.

Referring to the meeting as described by Mr Thompson a PSNI statement said: “It would be wrong to interpret any comments made by police at the meeting referred to as suggesting a lack of concern about police conduct or criminality. The PSNI investigation into a series of murders and other serious crimes by the UVF in north Belfast has been extensive, following on from work initiated by the Ombudsman and then progressed by the Historical Enquiries Team.

“A criminal trial is currently in progress at Belfast Crown Court. It is important to remember that other linked investigations are continuing. In the interests of clarity and fairness, police can give a categorical assurance that any individual suspected of criminality will be investigated, regardless of their occupation, either by PSNI, or if appropriate, by OPONI."

That statement is unlikely to assure Mr Thompson and the families he represents. They say the Ombudsman’s office is no longer fit for purpose and that it is incapable of investigating collusion. They also believe that having disabled the Police Ombudsman’s office following the devastating O’Loan report, such comments from the PSNI are just part of the process of having no State institution prepared to take ownership of the requirement to investigate State collusion in murder as recommended in 2007 by an official State-approved body, the Police Ombudsman’s office for Northern Ireland.

The role of the state /

Mark Thompson has no doubt he has heard that before but continues to demand to know who in the security services knew about terrorism and criminality involving informants and agents of the State but turned a blind eye and how far up the chain of command did the knowledge go?

Mr Thompson referred to the recent experience of the Finucane family in Downing Street. He said: “Very powerful forces are at play in Mi5 and PSNI, C2 intelligence and we need to look at their whole issue of legacy and their alleged involvement in many multiple incidents that happened in which people were killed.

“They are hiding the policy objective that was collusion because it went so high. So in terms of the British Government, they need to protect the people who directed the agent handlers, the managers of the agent handlers because very quickly it goes up the food chair into government and cabinet office.”

Relatives for Justice supports the call made by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley for an independent investigative legacy unit that has an international oversight person to look at it.

Today Denis Bradley warns of difficult days ahead if the issue is not dealt with by the British and Irish governments. He says the governments are detached from the issue because they want local politicians to learn how to govern without interference. But he feels local politicians lack the maturity to manage the legacy of the past.

So, in his opinion, there’s a danger of creating a festering sore that’s unlikely to derail the process of peace but that will cause community division and disruption.

As far as the issue of Cabinet knowledge of what was being done in the name of the State to protect the integrity of the State, Denis Bradley is undecided.

“I have been briefed on a lot of this stuff,” the former vice-chairman of the Policing Board told The Detail, “and I couldn’t make a final judgment on that but I would make the final judgment that horrendous things happened; that the state allowed to happen.

“Whether every Prime Minister or every cabinet minister knew about it is a grey area, but certainly things happened that were quite horrendous… and that the Prime Minister of Great Britain has now said happened… em so the past is not going away very fast, it is dripping into the present, we’re managing to hold it together and keep it going but I think it keeps souring relationships at many levels, and it leaves a lot of people very disturbed and very determined to keep after this until they get to that place were they think their justice or their truth lies.”

He said that that understandable pursuit of the truth must accept the historical differences between the paramilitaries and the State. Paramilitaries do not keep records he said and so the truth is that the real records for the State and for the paramilitaries exists with the State.

He went on: “If you want to find out about Scapatecci you are not going to find out about Scapatecci through the IRA because they didn’t know. The people who know about Scapatecci exist on the State side. Whatever Special Branch knew, whatever MI5 knew. Whoever ran him knows, whatever records are held on that.

“So when people say, what about bringing in the records on the paramilitaries, you can’t bring the paramilitaries in the way you can bring the State in. And the State holds the treasure of those memories on all sides and that’s where the State becomes important not to beat up the State but because they are the holders of those memories.”

However, with the lack of appetite to investigate the past within the institutions of the State, the only way those with a thirst for knowledge of how the State was involved in the terrorism and the criminality of the conflict are left with just one course of action – the courts of the land.

John Flynn has just lodged papers seeking a judicial review. This follows the revelation to Relatives for Justice by the PSNI that is no current investigation into collusion as recommended by Nuala O’Loan in 2007.

Nuala O'Loan investigated Haddock and his gang

Nuala O'Loan investigated Haddock and his gang

There’s mention in the court papers that the Chief Constable Matt Baggot told Mark Thompson in response to a Freedom of Information request that there are no specific terms of reference for the PSNI’s investigation of Operation Stafford.

John Flynn’s legal position is that he holds the PSNI responsible for the failure to investigate properly the allegations of collusion as recommended by Nuala O’Loan and as promised by the previous Chief Constable Hugh Orde.

As it is stated in his affidavit to the court, Mr Flynn says: “I do not accept that the Chief Constable of the PSNI can simple indicate that when it comes to implementing 34.1 of Ballast he has no remit or control. It is completely wrong and unsatisfactory for him to defer the matter to the Police Ombudsman knowing full well that the Ombudsman has not commenced a meaningful investigation into collusion to date nor is there any likelihood that he will do so in the foreseeable future.

“In the meantime further delay has arisen and time is passing which in turn creates huge prejudice with regard to the investigation leads against those members of the security forces who were actively involved in collusion with those who tried to kill me.”

Kevin Winters says this request for the court to make an intervention and make the necessary orders to compel the PSNI to implement recommendation 34.1 of the O’Loan report is a weapon of last resort.

“At at the core of the case is the failure to address Section 34.1 of Operation Ballast which is the investigation of alleged collusion in terms of criminality between members of the security forces and paramilitaries,” he says.

“The fact that we are left in my view with the last alternative of accessing the courts to try to get justice for Mr Flynn and indeed others is in my view already a sense of defeat because the institutions set up to deal with this type of sensitive issue have in fact failed. We have no alternative, reluctantly albeit, to ask the courts to intervene and give this issue some serious direction.”

And the legal route is what the Finucane family now find themselves taking as well in spite of being promised an inquiry by previous British governments.

That’s a lamentable position for families to find themselves in according to Denis Bradley.

The British and Irish governments have people with the maturity to deal with this but, he says, “the two governments have other things on their plates, and have other interests so they’re not going to do it, so we’re caught in the worst of worlds, where there is no forum for this, there is no political dynamic for this.

“And I do think that the people who want the answers will just continue to fight it through the courts. And I think that’s unfortunate, it’s bad for the courts, it’s bad for the police in my opinion, it’s bad for the Ombudsman’s office, it’s bad for the victims themselves, and it’s… it’s not the right way.”

Mark Thompson shares the view that the legal route is punitive and inflicts further pain on families already suffering. He says a centralized process is necessary to manage the legacy of the past.

He said: “We had that notion of that through the legacy commission proposed by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley and we need to get back to that otherwise we will be dealing with this for years. The effect of it on society will be somewhat negative. It will pollute civil society, communities and the body politic as how we try to move forward particularly if the issue of victimhood is politicised in the Assembly and that’s why we need to step back.”

But Denis Bradley has identified another dynamic in the lack of enthusiasm for disclosure of the State’s intelligence led involvement in the conflict. He says retired police officers exercise a strong influence because of past historical mistrust of MI5.

“I mean there are tensions here between people who are retired officers of the RUC and the British State because one of the fears is that former RUC and particularly Special Branch people had and have is that the British State is quite happy to dump the blame on them,” he said.

Mr Bradley said the local police have described to him the existence of what they termed, “the other room.” That’s a reference to the often unseen influence and work of British security services and their political masters.

He believes the former RUC officers, and particularly Special Branch officers, fear history will judge them alone as being the instruments of collusion.

“And therefore these people feel they were being used and abused to some degree,” said Mr Bradley. They are convinced there is a very real danger that the sins of the past will be thrust upon them alone. In other words, history will judge them as the real baddies.

They feel, according to Denis Bradley: “That while the IRA were terrible over there, the UVF over there…the real baddies were the RUC and Special Branch. They are saying excuse us – we were not always fully in control; we were not fully in charge; we didn’t make the policy decisions…there was this other room. And quite often if we, in Special Branch, were holding material from our colleagues in the police, MI5 were equally holding information from us and the Mi5, the military intelligence were quite often running agents we knew little about.”

The former Policing Board vice chairman told The Detail this created two versions of history: “I think that’s a very interesting history if anybody ever got to it – was there another room? MI5 claim there was no other room. The politicians claim there was no other room.

“I’m inclined to be on the side of the RUC retired officers on that one. I think there was other rooms at times when things got rough.”