NI Secretary Peter Hain expressed his “shock”. One hopes this was the simply the reflexive throat-clearing required of officers of the state upon learning that an arm of the establishment they represent is knee-deep in the blood of innocents. I say that because anyone tangentially acquainted with events in Northern Ireland for the last 40 years will file this story alongside the well-worn account of bears and where they defecate. “Deplorable” and “lamentable” yes, but a “shock”? I think not.
Police colluded with loyalists behind over a dozen murders in north Belfast, a report by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland has confirmed.
Special Branch officers gave the killers immunity…
The officers ensured the murderers were not caught and even “baby-sat” them during police interviews to help them avoid incriminating themselves.
The Special Branch officers “created false notes” and blocked searches for UVF weapons.
These are the bare facts. For decades, nationalists have complained about prejudicial policing in the province (although this report from the ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, covers only the 12 year period ending in 2003, focuses on the activities of north Belfast only and highlights cases where both Protestants and Catholics have been murdered with state collusion). These complaints have been met with a mixture of genuine – if spectacularly naïve – disbelief from those who cannot conceive of the instruments of a British state playing anything other than fair, and what can charitably be called ‘cognitive dissonance’ from those closer to events on the ground who always suspected, but wouldn’t say.
Although, as is always the case, it’s impossible to know who knew what. This activity didn’t start in 1991 (see Sir John Stevens’ report) and I suspect that no premier from Heath to Major sat on hard evidence that Special Branch was directly implicated in the murder of (usually, but not exclusively) innocent Catholics, but I’m inclined to believe this owes little to the diligence of UVF sympathizers in her majesty’s employ successfully covering their tracks, and is more likely the product of criminal and shameful indifference displayed by successive administrations of both stripes, who simply preferred to dismiss such allegations as so much republican propaganda.
The message from London may have changed little over the years: unflinching support for the majoritarian principle that guarantees Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom; the reality is that Northern Ireland and the people in it have consistently derogated from the rules, laws and conventions that bind us on the mainland, and Westminster has either given its tacit approval or simply looked the other way. See no collusion, hear no collusion.
As horrific as the detail is, in some ways O’Loan’s account of the obstacles and obstruction her investigating team had to overcome is potentially more damaging to the peace process than the hard facts about individual acts of state collusion with loyalist death squads. First, she laments the behaviour of some retired RUC/PSNI personnel:
In the course of the investigation the Police Ombudsman sought the cooperation of a number of retired RUC/PSNI senior officers…The majority of them failed even to reply. This was despite the fact that witness details would be anonomised in any public statement. Amongst those who refused were two retired Assistant Chief Constable’s, seven Detective Chief Superintendent’s and two Detective Superintendent’s.
Next, she exposes what must surely amount to the criminal behaviour of serving officers:
Others, including some serving officers, gave evasive, contradictory, and on occasion farcical answers to questions. On occasion those answers indicated either a significant failure to understand the law, or contempt for the law. On other occasions the investigation demonstrated conclusively that what an officer had told the Police Ombudsman’s investigators was completely untrue.
The Sinn Fein leadership is currently in the midst of an ideological struggle that could shape not only future of their party, but also the peace process itself. A failure to persuade members to commit the party to support the new police service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) will sound the death knell for the assembly and devolved power and signal a return to London rule for a generation at least. If the ombudsman’s report does nothing else, it should answer those who insist the debate within Sinn Fein is nothing more than republican grandstanding that seeks to exploit groundless fears.
That said, I believe Sinn Fein should heed the advice of its leaders and commit itself to supporting the sine qua non of any functioning democracy. In return, nationalists and republicans should be entitled to assume that any serving officers guilty of obstructing O’Loan’s investigations will shortly be looking for new employment, and that Sir Ronnie Flanagan, former head of Special Branch and RUC Chief Constable for the second half of the period covered in O’Loan’s report, will resign or be sacked from his role as head of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
The people of Northern Ireland – of all affiliations and none – deserve better than a police service that has yet to prove it has made strides to match those taken by the communities it exists to protect and serve.