Where was RUC Special Branch’s moral compass?

Posted By: February 10, 2022

Patricia Mac Bride. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, February 10, 2022

On Tuesday, Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson published her investigation into police handling of loyalist paramilitary murders and attempted murders in south Belfast in the period 1990-1998 and it made for grim reading.

Marie Anderson said she had been “deeply concerned” by the scale of the failings identified during her investigation.

Some of these concerns related to the “continued, unjustifiable use by Special Branch of informants involved in serious criminality, including murder, and the passive “Turning of a blind eye'” to such activities.”

Two people were not warned of threats to their lives. Guns that had been deactivated were handed back to someone with the capacity to reactivate them and subsequently used in further murders. Special Branch failed to provide intelligence to those investigating murders and, in the case of the murders in the Sean Graham bookmakers, evidence was deliberately destroyed.

Marie Anderson stated that investigative failures and the failure to retain records fell below the standards of what would be expected of a police service anywhere at that time. She highlighted that the lack of records meant a lack of accountability, but that she believed the failure to maintain records was an attempt to avoid accountability.

There was no decision-making framework, no policy, or written documentation on one of the most sensitive areas of policing and as a result, accountability is diminished. One former RUC officer said on the radio that Special Branch was let down because there were no guidelines.

But even if there were no guidelines or policy or procedure, where was the moral compass?

A specialized policing unit was engaged in deactivating weapons and deliberately kept no record. In some cases, there were weapons handed back that were not deactivated.

The former Special Branch informer, William Stobie, who has been previously named, was told to take back the pistol used in the Sean Graham’s attack so that his cover would not be blown, yet the RUC knew he had the capability to reactivate this weapon.

How do you even begin to defend handing back a weapon to someone you know is involved in criminality and murder?

How can you say you need guidelines to know the right and wrong of that?

Set aside any legal issues for a moment and just think about the horrific human consequences of that single act.

The PSNI said the ombudsman’s report made for uncomfortable reading and apologized to the families. It said that significant strides had been made in putting in place policies and procedures so that such things could never happen in modern-day policing.

Perhaps instead of congratulating themselves on how far they say they have come, they might consider going out and arresting and questioning suspects in these murders who have never been interviewed.

This latest report has shone a light once again on collusion. Marie Anderson may be constrained in her language as a result of a 2020 High Court action by a group of retired RUC officers, but she is clear that the collusive behaviors she has uncovered in her investigation go way beyond shoddy policing or incompetence; it is something more.

She faces huge challenges in investigating the past. She is unable to compel retired officers to assist in an investigation in a witness capacity. There appears to be a corporate attitude amongst retired officers that the ombudsman only exists to carry out witch-hunts and for these reasons, some officers will not cooperate with inquiries.

In that context, the strength of the victims and survivors in pursuing truth and accountability is, even more, to be admired. Their belief that they were targeted and their loved ones murdered due to a state policy of collusion has been vindicated.

“Does it take recourse to law to tell ten thousand what they saw?”

This line from Thomas Kinsella’s poem, “Butcher’s Dozen” has been in my head over the last number of weeks following the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It came to mind again this week reading Marie Anderson’s report. The overwhelming majority of nationalists and republicans did not need to read this report to know that collusion was very, very real.

But this report, coming on top of the Operation Greenwich report last month into murders including those at Castlerock and Greysteel, the Loughinisland report, reports by Desmond Da Silva and Lord Stevens, paints a frightening picture of just how deeply involved agencies of the state were in aiding and abetting loyalist paramilitaries.

It strengthens the case for opposing those who try to treat truth, justice, and accountability as a zero-sum game. We have to stop the “whataboutery” and give all victims and survivors the opportunity to find out what happened and try and, as a society, make reparations to them.