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28 November 2002 Edition

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Special Branch assault on Agreement

BY LAURA FRIEL


"Last month, Sinn Féin predicted that the PSNI Special Branch would engage in a series of timetabled events designed to undermine the peace process," said Conor Murphy.

The Assembly member for Newry and Armagh was commenting after a series of raids and six arrests in Belfast and North Antrim on Tuesday. The PSNI actions were accompanied by briefings designed to enhance the agenda of rejectionist unionism by flooding the media with more anti-republican spin.

As in similar recent operations undertaken by Special Branch, the timing of the arrests followed sharply on the heels of the publication of draft clauses to be included in new policing legislation and widespread speculation around Sinn Féin's possible participation in the policing board.

Murphy described the raids and arrests as the latest instalment in a planned and coordinated effort. "Events like today reinforce clearly in the minds of the nationalist community just how far the current policing arrangements have to go before we achieve a policing service without the malign influence of the Special Branch at its core," he said.

Four men and two women were arrested and brought to Castlereagh interrogation centre following a series of raids on homes in Belfast and North Antrim. A pregnant woman, whose three-year-old was left alone in the house when she and her partner were arrested, was subsequently released.

The six were no sooner in custody than the media spin began, breathing life into what is effectively an old story of an alleged IRA gun running operation in Florida in 1999. Incidentally, all those convicted in the United States have served their sentences and have been released.

But if the story was old hat, the PSNI's decision to display the weaponry seized by the FBI across the Atlantic almost four years ago provided just the right imagery to enhance Special Branch propaganda of 'clear and present danger'.

And having stirred the pot, the Special Branch only needed to sit back and allow the media and unionist politicians bring it to the boil.

"Furious unionist leaders are now demanding that the [British] government immediately recalls the Assembly and sets up Executive institutions without Sinn Féin," said the Newsletter front page.

Michael McGimpsey of the UUP demanded immediate 'disclosure' and reiterated the call for the exclusion of Sinn Féin. "The incident could only serve to further undermine unionist confidence and it challenged any republican commitment to democracy," he said.

The DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr said that the arrests came as a timely warning. "The nature and extent of this investigation, on the day when the [British] government was preparing to deliver every policing concession demanded by IRA/Sinn Fein, clearly demonstrates the continuing intentions of IRA/Sinn Fein," he said.

As Paisley Jnr admits, the timing and agenda behind the Special Branch operation is obvious, even to the DUP. However the only thing it "clearly demonstrates" is "the continuing intentions" of the prime movers, the PSNI Special Branch, and their determination to thwart progressive change both within policing and the wider political arena.

"Unionists would do well to remember that Sinn Féin represents the majority of nationalists in the North and the rights and entitlements of our electorate are not up for barter or discussion," said Sinn Féin's Francie Molloy.

"Michael McGimpsey would be better off focusing on the failure of his party to promote the Agreement and defend the political institutions rather than dance to a carefully crafted anti Agreement agenda from the Special Branch," he said.

For those arrested it can come as no comfort that they are being scapegoated to meet a political agenda. The Stormont civil servant who was released without charge after being arrested may have only been a discarded pawn in the Special Branch offensive, but his livelihood and career has been ruined and his personal safety compromised after the British media published his name and details.

Meanwhile, the PSNI press office has refused to comment after the senior Special Branch officer, who headed the operation that led to the raid on Sinn Féin's Stormont offices, announced his early retirement.

Bill Lowry, head of the Special Branch in Belfast, quit his job after being interviewed by the new Chief Constable Hugh Orde, who questioned the officer in relation to recent media leaks.

An internal investigation was launched after a Special Branch source claimed that a mole at the heart of the IRA had led to the Stormont raid. The source suggested that the arrest of a former NIO porter was just a smokescreen. Bill Lowry was later identified as the source.

Lowry's 'revelations' had taken place just hours after a press conference by the newly appointed Deputy Chief Constable, Alan McQuillan. At the time, An Phoblacht questioned the tenuous distinction drawn between upfront PSNI press briefings on camera and off camera sources.

After all, there was no discernable difference in the political spin. In other words, if McQuillan's role was to set the pot to boil, Lowry's contribution was designed to keep the story simmering. And now it has emerged that there is no distinction between the authorisation either. According to the PSNI press office, like McQuillan, Lowry's press briefing was authorised.

It appears that McQuillan's 'promise' of an 'investigation' into 'leaks' only emerged in an unguarded moment during an interview by a Tribune journalist. Questioned about the PSNI's role in a media campaign to discredit Sinn Fein as part of a unionist anti Agreement agenda, McQuillan switched into damage limitation mode and announced a possible probe into 'leaks'.

But of course the manipulation of the media by the PSNI for political purposes goes far beyond so called 'leaks'. In this instance, Lowry may have been asked to be the fall guy but fact that his briefing was authorised by the PSNI undermines the proposition that it was the work of a 'renegade' officer.

"Since the raid on the Special Branch offices earlier this year, the PSNI have been actively involved in a media management operation," said Sinn Féin's spokesperson on policing Gerry Kelly.

"Certain journalists have been fed misinformation at politically delicate times and this has contributed to undermining the peace process. Since the stage managed invasion of Sinn Fein's offices in Stormont the PSNI have been engaged in trial by media and leaks," said Kelly.


PSNI shoot unarmed man


Meanwhile, a man is recovering in hospital after being shot in the chest and critically wounded by the PSNI in Belfast city centre. The shooting followed a surveillance operation in which a vehicle parked in the city centre was later found to be carrying an incendiary device.

Two men were confronted by armed PSNI officers near Upper Queen Street at around 6pm last Sunday. The PSNI opened fire hitting Paul Donnelly twice in the chest and leg. A second man was arrested at the scene. The seriously injured man was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he remained critical for several days before stabilising.

The attempted bombing is believed to have been the work of dissident republicans and it later emerged that the injured man, a 23-year-old from West Belfast, had previously been involved in anti-social activities involving car crime.

To date, the PSNI have refused to confirm or deny whether either of the two men were armed at the time of the shooting. It is believed that both men were unarmed.

Sinn Féin chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin condemned the activities of dissidents but questioned the PSNI's decision to shoot rather than arrest unarmed people. In a second incident, a man in Newry was rushed to hospital after being shot by the PSNI during what was believed to be a ram raid.

"It has raised again the spectre of shoot-to-kill and the ambush strategy of the 1980s and 1990s," said McLaughlin.

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