Nadine Finch analyses the findings of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Two recent statements by members of the Labour Party leadership exemplify the failure by the Party to have any proper regard for the consequences of British actions in Northern Ireland and the impact that they continue to have on the Irish community in both Ireland and Britain.
The uncritical lauding of the Attlee government failed to acknowledge the part it played in cementing a Northern Ireland state that gerrymandered electoral boundaries and excluded many Catholics from access to public housing and employment in key industrial sectors. At the same time support for a “shoot to kill” approach, not only ignored the murders that took place on Bloody Sunday but also failed to take into account the outcome of the recent Ballymurphy inquests and some of the concerns which formed the background to the two Police Ombudsman reports that were released earlier in 2022. These reports did not address the behaviour of military personnel but exposed the actions of Loyalist paramilitaries, who colluded with some members of the RUC in actions which were both illegal and in contravention with policies said to apply at that time.
These reports are a timely reminder of the justifiable concerns about the manner in which the Royal Ulster Constabulary had been policing Northern Ireland in the years prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This led to the formation of a new Police Service of Northern Ireland and also the creation of the Office of the Police Ombudsman. This is independent of the Police Service and is responsible for complaints made by or on behalf of members of the public about the conduct of a member of the police force.
The Ombudsman also has the power to consider incidents that are not the subjects of individual complaints, if they are linked by evidence or similar facts and where there is a public interest in carrying out a thematic investigation. The two reports exemplify the importance of having a Police Ombudsman who can look at incidents, that are not the subject of inquests or individual complaints, and it is important to recognise that such investigations would also be terminated by the proposed Amnesty Bill.
Earlier in 2022, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Marie Anderson, published two reports which resulted from thematic investigations into the response by the Police Service into what appeared to be linked murders carried out by Loyalist paramilitary groups. The first was entitled Investigation into police handling of certain loyalist paramilitary murders and attempted murders in the north-west of Northern Ireland during the period 1989 to 1993. The second report was entitled Investigation into police handling of Loyalist paramilitary murders and attempted murders in South Belfast in the period 1990 -1998.
The first investigation looked at murders and multiple attempted murders by the North West Brigade of the UDA/UFF and the involvement of RUC informers in these incidents. Whilst, the Ombudsman accepted the necessity of recruiting informers, she had significant concerns about the management of a number of them and concluded that they were being tasked and ultilised by their Special Branch handlers despite there being intelligence and evidence linking them to serious sectarian crimes, including murder. She also concluded that their active involvement with the UDA/UFF was, in most cases, a prerequisite, as opposed to an impediment, to their being recruited.
The RUC was also aware that the North-West brigade of the UDA/UFF had developed its own intelligence system and that it did not distinguish between actions by members of Sinn Fein and IRA operations. In particular, the Brigade recorded the name and address of all known or suspected republicans, along with their photographs and details of the vehicles they drove. The Police Ombudsman also concluded that the UDA/UFF was receiving relevant army intelligence from a number of former or serving members of the military and had access to security force information.
The Ombudsman did not conclude that the RUC had prior knowledge of individual attacks but concluded that some of the victims should have been informed that their details had been found in some of the Loyalist caches and that RUC Force Orders about threat intelligence were not applied consistently. This was despite that fact that it was known that in 1987 the UDA/UFF and other Loyalist groups had successfully and unlawfully imported a number of VZ58 assault rifles and Browning 9mm semi-automatic pistols into Northern Ireland. The RUC had monitored the arrival and distribution of these weapons and had then failed to retrieve all of them. Forensic tests subsequently confirmed that one of the “lost” 9mm Browning pistols was used in three individual killings in North West Northern Ireland and also the murder of four men at Castlerock.
The second investigation concerned eight loyalist attacks by the UDA/UFF in South Belfast between 1990 and 1998 in which eleven people were murdered, including the four men and one boy killed at Sean Graham Bookmakers. The Ombudsman also referred to the weapons that had arrived in 1987. In addition, she noted the UDA/UFF had also used weapons lost by UDR officers and others which had been destined for decommissioning by the RUC.
Overall, the Ombudsman concluded that the UDA/UFF had targeted Catholics in South Belfast and that the murders were sectarian and sometimes indiscriminate. One such murder was the shooting of a Sinn Fein member’s wife who happened to be in a downstairs room when the UDA/UFF arrived. This occurred after the RUC had failed to alert her husband that fresh threats had been made to his safety.
As in the previous report, the Ombudsman was critical of the manner in which informants were recruited and managed. She also noted that eight of the informants recruited from the South Belfast UDA/UFF were linked to the murder or attempted murder of some twenty-seven individuals.
The two reports did not conclude that the RUC, as a police force, failed to undertake any investigations into the murders and some of these investigations did lead to convictions, at least for possession of weapons, if not murder. However, a number of police officers declined to assist the Ombudsman in her investigation, crucial documents relating to the use of informers had been destroyed and there was a pattern of similar failings in the initial investigations carried out by the RUC. This was sufficient for the Ombudsman to conclude in both reports that there was evidence of collusion between the RUC and the UDA/UFF in relation to some incidents and a clear lack of forensic probity.
Nadine Finch is Chair of Labour for Irish Unity.
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