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8 April 2004 Edition

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The most flagrant type of collusion

BY FERN LANE

In his investigation into the murder of 25-year-old Robert Hamill by a loyalist mob in the early hours of 27 April 1997, Judge Cory lists nine separate elements of the RUC's response on the night and during its subsequent investigation that require a public inquiry. However, he singled out the conduct of former RUC Reserve Constable Robert Atkinson - referred to throughout the report as "Reserve Constable B" — as being "of such a worrisome nature that it, of itself, requires that there be a public inquiry to resolve the issue".

Atkinson's actions after the killing, says Cory, "if established, are capable of being found to constitute the most flagrant type of collusion. His actions did not constitute the simple turning of a blind eye. Rather they could be found to be carefully planned and premeditated actions taken to frustrate a murder investigation and to protect or exonerate an individual who might have been guilty of murder."

These actions, he continues "could be found to have frustrated a full and careful police investigation of Robert Hamill's murder".

Atkinson was one of the four RUC occupants of the police jeep, the others being Constable Andrew Neil, Reserve Constable Sharp and Reserve Constable Cornett (referred to as A, C and D), who failed to come to the assistance of Robert Hamill and his companions as they were attacked, despite being in full view of the incident and despite the desperate pleadings of Siobhán Girvan, who repeatedly banged on the side of vehicle and shouted for help.

The police continue to claim that the killing of Robert was part of a "sectarian riot" in Portadown and that they had intervened immediately to put a stop to the fighting. They claim that the four officers did not see the attack and had been unaware of Siobhán Girvan's desperate pleas for assistance.

Robert Atkinson and his wife Elearnor were subsequently charged with perverting the course of justice when it emerged that he had telephoned Suspect O, believed to be Allister Hanvey, the day after the murder, advising him to dispose of the clothing he had been wearing the previous night. Those clothes have never been recovered. It further transpired that the two were close associates, both leading members of a local martial arts club, and had known each other very well for some years.

Judge Cory says: "The questions raised by the actions alleged to have been taken by Officer B to advise Mr O to get rid of this clothes are so serious that they must be explored in a public inquiry. There is no other way to restore public confidence in the PSNI... Moreover, it may be that this act affected and permeated the approach of the police to their entire investigation."

The report also notes that, despite the fact that Atkinson clearly knew Hanvey well, "he was loathe to identify Mr O by name" in either of his early statements, the first later on 27 April and the second the following day. "Indeed," continues the report, "Mr O was not mentioned by name until Officer B was interviewed under caution in September 1997. Even then Officer B suggested that he had only a passing acquaintance with Mr O."

The charges against Atkinson arose from the fact that he concocted a complicated cover story with Michael and Andrea McKee (Mr and Mrs X) to make it appear as if Michael McKee had made a, perfectly innocent, call to Hanvey at the time in question. His trial only collapsed because the crucial prosecution witness, referred to only as Witness A in the report, who is believed to have had a close relationship with Hanvey, refused to testify in court, apparently fearing for her life. The report notes, however, that she has never denied the truthfulness of her statement that Hanvey told her of Atkinson's warning telephone call.

Judge Cory also highlights a number of other aspects of the RUC's conduct which should be explored by an inquiry.

* The fact that the officers, just prior to the attack on Robert, had received a warning about the probability of trouble from a passing pedestrian. That they chose to ignore the warning could, says the report, be found to be a collusive act "taken to assist the Protestant rioters".

* The question of what could be heard from the inside of the Land Rover. The police officers claim to have heard nothing. However, the report argues that "If the shouts and screams of Joanne and Siobhan Girvan could be heard and were ignored that could constitute an act of collusion that encouraged or aided the Protestant rioters by turning a blind eye to their behaviour".

* The reluctance of the police on the scene, the majority of whom were local to Portadown, to identify the attackers. The report observes that "It might be found significant that it was only one of the back up officers who had no difficulty in naming several of those present. This was a small community, and many of the civilians seemed to know the police. Was there a reluctance on the part of the police to name those present? If this is established, this could be found to amount to a collusive act that would assist the Protestant rioters."

* The failure of the police to seal off the scene and gather forensic evidence, including blood and other liquids samples. This failure, says the report, "may indicate a bias in the police force that could amount to institutional collusion".

* The release of the suspect identified only as Mr J but believed to be to be Wayne Lunt. Lunt, one of the attackers, was placed in the back of the Land Rover by Constable Clare Halley (E), who had arrived on the scene, but was released half an hour later despite Halley being told by a witness that "he was one of the ones who done it". Halley allegedly said that it was not "convenient" to continue to detain him. "Why" asks the report, "was there not a more timely follow-up on this suspect and evidence that might have been gathered from him?"

* The behaviour of Detective Inspector S, believed to be DI Irwen, who failed to notice or act on the discrepancy between the statements of Witness A, who told of the telephone call from Robert Atkinson to Allister Hanvey, and Andrew McKee, who falsely claimed that her then husband Michael had made the call.

Although Allister Hanvey, together with Dean Forbes, Rory Robinson, Wayne Lunt, Stacey Bridgett and Paul Hobson, was eventually charged in relation to the killing he, like most of the others, was acquitted because of a lack of evidence. The only exception was Hobson, who was convicted of affray. The report notes that Lunt and Bridget asked to be housed in the LVF wing of Long Kesh whilst on remand.

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