Issue 1 - 2023 front

18 March 1999 Edition

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An open secret, collusion and the RUC

by Laura Friel
  I was getting that many documents that I didn't know where to put them.
Bobby Philpott, senior UDA gunman

During the screening of ``Loyalists'', the latest television documentary about the conflict in Ireland by Peter Taylor, a senior loyalist paramilitary described on camera widespread crown force collusion. In the political row which erupted afterwards, Ronnie Flanagan dismissed the allegations as ``nothing new''. In this respect, at least, the RUC Chief Constable and the nationalist population in the North would not disagree. Since the imposition of the Six County statelet northern nationalists have borne the brunt of hostile state forces who deemed them ``the enemy within''. From the burning of Bombay Street to the siege of Garvaghy Road, the RUC and their predecessors have flaunted their tacit approval of loyalist intimidation and sectarian violence. In times of political crisis, open hostility towards nationalists has been accompanied by covert collusion with loyalists killers. From the McMahon murders in the 1920s to the death of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane and now Rosemary Nelson, hundreds of loyalist attacks have been stamped with the hallmarks of collusion. In this respect Bobby Philpott's remarks only add further testimony to an already ``open secret''. The allegations are ``nothing new'' Ronnie Flanagan, because there is nothing new about collusion. It's been happening for years.
Bobby Philpott is a senior member of the UDA. He was recently released after serving a 15 year sentence for the attempted murder of a Catholic couple at their mobile home near Lisburn in 1992. On film Philpott told BBC reporter Peter Taylor that he had received large amounts of secret documentation from the RUC, British army and UDR. The documents contained detailed information on `suspects', including names, addresses, photographs, details of vehicles, ``even the colour of their socks and jumpers''. To date the RUC have admitted that over two thousand of their files containing the personal details of nationalists are `missing' and in the hands of loyalist death squads. Asked if the UDA could have done what it did without that degree of collusion, Philpott's reply was a simple ``no''. A contribution to the programme by deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party John Taylor, exposed the political climate within which collusion takes place. The unionist politician described the sectarian murder campaign by loyalist paramilitaries as a ``significant contribution''. Loyalist killers ``achieved something perhaps the security forces would never have achieved, `` said Taylor, ``and that they were a significant contribution to the IRA finally accepting that they couldn't win.'' Sectarian terrorism against the nationalist community, the murder of political opponents and the summary execution of people suspected of being members of the IRA remains a feature of life in the Six Counties which commands a telling ambiguity amongst the Unionist establishment.

  It's an open secret, everyone knows it.  
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein President

Former Police Authority member Chris Ryder recently pointed out that during the Stevens Inquiry hundreds of crown force montages surfaced and they were all of RUC origin. Despite this no member of the RUC has ever been charged or prosecuted as a result of the inquiry. This fact is less an exoneration of the RUC than an indictment of Stevens. Ronnie Flannagan's assertion that allegations of collusion have been ``thoroughly and vigorously investigated by John Stevens'', stands in stark contrast to Amnesty International's evaluation of the Stevens Inquiry. In a special report ``Political killings in Northern Ireland'' published in 1994 Amnesty criticised the Stevens Inquiry for failing to look at the issue of collusion as a whole, describing the inquiry as ``limited''. ``It did not look at evidence that collusion between members of the security forces and loyalist armed groups had been going on for many years, or at the overall pattern as it related to both targeted and random killings of Catholics,'' said Amnesty. Describing the Stevens Inquiry as ``another lost opportunity'', Amnesty criticised the British government's ``reluctance to institute broad and independent inquiries into allegations of collusion with death squads that have been operating for over 20 years in the name of the political status quo''. Amnesty accused government officials of ``complacency and complicity'' and criticised ``the failure of the authorities to take effective measures to stop collusion'' and the failure ``to bring appropriate sanctions against people who collude.'' A far cry from Ronnie Flanagan's thorough and vigorous investigation.

  These allegations have been thoroughly and vigorously investigated by John Stevens who found no evidence of RUC collusion.  
Ronnie Flanagan, RUC Chief Constable

Bobby Philpott is not the only loyalist whose recent remarks have further fuelled the collusion controversy. John Weir was a Sergeant in the RUC of eight years standing when he was convicted for his part in the murder of Catholic pharmacist William Strathearn. Strathearn was shot dead outside his shop near Ballymena in April 1977. Weir and another serving member of the RUC, Billy McCaughey were convicted two years later. Last month in a detailed interview with the Sunday Times, John Weir outlined the RUC's ``secret war with the IRA''. Weir makes a series of detailed allegations. According to Weir RUC officers in Newry collected home made machine guns and sold them to the Portadown UVF. Weir claims he was given one of these weapons in the home of Harry Breen. Breen was an RUC Chief Inspector at the time, he later became a Superintendent and was subsequently killed by the IRA in 1989. Guns handed in during the 1971 amnesty were routinely passed to the UDA by RUC officers in East Belfast. Members of the RUC bombed and shot up the Rock Bar in Keady in 1975 and bombed Tully's bar in Whitecross in 1976. Some of the RUC members involved in the Rock attack were later convicted. Weir also claims that members of the RUC were involved in the massacre of three members of the Reavy family in Greyhillan in 1976. According to Weir a farm of a former RUC reservist near Markethill was a regular meeting place for loyalist gunmen and crown force members. The farm was the staging point for the Dublin and Monaghan bombs, an attack on Donnelly's bar in Silverbridge in 1975 in which three people were killed, and other attacks, says Weir. Weir alleges that he was asked to carryout terrorist attacks by an RUC Inspector, now retired, and a British army Intelligence officer. He says the Inspector told him that a very senior RUC officer, now retired, approved. Weir's collusion trail ended with Brian Fitzsimmons, a Special Branch detective who rose to Assistant Chief Constable before his death in a helicopter crash which claimed the lives of 2 other senior intelligence officers in 1994. Weir's relationship with Fitzsimmons is unclear. Speaking of Fitzsimmons Weir says, ``he told me he knew I had connections out there. That was why he wanted me to go out, make more connections, find out what was going on. He also made it clear that the Special Branch was keeping an eye on me.'' Fitzsimmons kept Weir under surveillance and allotted two RUC members to ``befriend'' him. Weir says one of the two RUC men said he approved of Weir's actions. Weir was also told he was suspected of Strathearn's murder.

Systematic collusion by the RUC is exposed by Sean McPhilemy in his book ``The Committee, political assassinations in Northern Ireland''. McPhilemy's account of collusion began with a television documentary by Box Production for Channel Four in which it was claimed loyalist groups had come together under the control and direction of a new organisation, the Ulster Loyalist Central Co ordinating Committee which comprised of between fifty and sixty members drawn from all sections of the loyalist community including businessmen, professions and senior members of the RUC. A loyalist source describes two secret groupings within the RUC, the rank and file Inner Force and the more elite group the Inner Circle. A third of the RUC are members of the Inner Force, the source claims, ``organised on a local police station level''. According to the source, members of the RUC provided names and files on ``certain terrorists which needed to be eliminated'', for the Committee to discuss and select. It would then be passed back to the local RUC Inner Force/Circle who, in conjunction with local loyalist hitmen, would organise the attack. More specifically RUC involvement is cited in the murder of Lurgan Republican Sam Marshall in March 1990, the killing of Lurgan youth Denis Carville seven months later and two attacks in March 1991, the triple murder at a mobile sweet shop in Craigavon and the attack at Boyle's Bar in Cappagh in which four people were killed. In a filmed interview, Jim Sands, described by McPhilemy as a close friend of loyalist killer Billy Wright, spoke of Pat Finucane's death. ``Representatives from the Inner Force advised that maybe the time was right to remove Pat Finucane who, according to files that had come from Knock [RUC] Headquarters,...was very prominent within the Provisional IRA.'' Sands also said the Committee had documents from British agent Brian Nelson. According to Sands, at a well attended meeting held in Finaghy Orange Hall, the RUC Inner Force proposed that the Belfast solicitor should be `removed'. Th Committee agreed that now was ``an appropriate moment'' to end Finucane's life.

Allegations of Crown force collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane are nothing new. The arrest of Brian Nelson was undoubtedly the single most significant consequence of the Stevens' Inquiry. The inquiry had been set up ostensibly to investigate the `leaking' of secret crown force documents to loyalist death squads, but the focus was almost immediately shifted away from crown force coladas towards loyalist receivers of information. Inadvertantly that shift of emphasis led the inquiry team to Brian Nelson. Nelson, a British agent acting as an intelligence officer for the UDA, was a key player in the reorganisation and rearming of loyalist paramilitaries. With the help of his British Intelligence handlers, Nelson selected targets and provided intelligence backup to loyalist assassination squads. Mindful of the Steven's' Inquiry his army handlers had helped Nelson hide a suitcase of `leaked' documentation but inexplicably when Nelson was arrested by the Stevens team he began talking. Nelson was brought to trial but in a last minute deal with the prosecution the most serious charges were dropped for a plea of guilty to 20 charges, including conspiracy to murder five named individuals. Amongst the five was Pat Finucane.

The killing of Pat Finucane took place in the context of frequent threats by RUC interrogators against the solicitor to his clients. A year before the killing, Amnesty International had taken evidence from a former detainee who recounted threats made against Finucane at Castlereagh Interrogation Centre. During Nelson's trial it was claimed that his British army handlers had been informed of the plot to kill Finucane two months in advance. The implication was that the lapse of time between the tip off from Nelson and the attack could account for the apparent `failure' of the British army to protect the endangered solicitor. The RUC strenuously denied that the information was ever passed on to them.

The cock up theory of history would let everyone off the hook. After the trial Nelson alleged that he had passed a photograph of Finucane to UDA killers just a few days before the attack. Loyalist sources claimed that Nelson pointed out the solicitors' Belfast home to the gunmen. More recently it has been revealed that the RUC had prior warning of an imminent attack on Finucane but did not respond. According to Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre a private conversation he had with a former member of the Police Authority confirmed that the RUC had prior knowledge of the murder attack. ``Two years ago a former member of the Police Authority told me that the RUC in general and former Special Branch head Brian Fitzsimmons in particular had no prior knowledge of the plot to murder Pat Finucane. I disagreed and to my amazement, was then told that the RUC did have prior knowledge but only hours beforehand when they were told by the army who were trying to cover their own backs.'' The former Police authority member then attempted to explain why protection had not been immediately afforded to the solicitor. ``There followed a bizarre explanation of the difficulties the RUC had providing security on Sundays in Belfast.'' Evidence continues to point increasingly towards not a failure by the British army and RUC to intercept the killers but active collusion in allowing the murder to proceed.

This new round of RUC collusion with loyalist killers comes at a particularly sensitive time for the RUC especially with the Monday killing of Rosemary Nelson. With nationalist politicians united in the call for the RUC to be disbanded and the conclusion of the Patten Commission on Policing imminent, the RUC must have hoped to have kept the collusion controversy under wraps. Unfortunately for the RUC as we move towards the new milennum the ``open secret'' of crown force collusion increasingly becomes a matter of public record.

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