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15 March 2001 Edition

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Stevens team quits RUC offices


The sudden removal of the Stevens' team from offices in an RUC complex in Carrickfergus has fuelled speculation suggesting either the investigation is about to collapse or that the closer Stevens gets to identifying the role of the RUC Special Branch the less comfortable the team is accepting RUC hospitality.

During the first Stevens probe into Crown force collusion with loyalist death squads, the team's offices in the RUC's Carrickfergus barracks were gutted in a fire that destroyed vital evidence and potentially could have scuttled the investigation completely if backup files had not been stored elsewhere. The fire is believed to have been the work of British Army saboteurs.

Earlier in the year, the Stevens team announced it was interviewing senior members of the RUC Special Branch in relation to the killing of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane. At the time the team stressed that the RUC officers, up to the rank of superintendent, were being questioned on a voluntary basis and would not be arrested or cautioned.

Two of William Stobie's RUC handlers have been questioned. An RUC detective has also given evidence to the Stevens team. RUC officer Johnston Brown says a UDA member confessed to the Finucane killing but that he was forbidden to pursue the interrogation by RUC Special Branch officers.

Last year, the Stevens' team recovered several boxes of British intelligence documents relating to the handling of the FRU agent at the centre of the collusion controversy, Brian Nelson.

So called ``contact forms'' record the details of each meeting between the agent and their handlers. It is thought that the Stevens team can establish which of the documents, some of which are incriminating, were passed to the RUC and when.

RUC Special Branch handlers of another agent within the UDA, Tommy Lyttle, may also face questioning by the Stevens team. At the time of the Finucane killing, Lyttle was the head of the UDA.

Before his death, Lyttle claimed that the initial impetus to kill Finucane came from two RUC interrogators in Castlereagh. Lyttle reported this incident to his RUC Special Branch handler who ``didn't discourage the idea that he (Finucane) should be shot.''

Meanwhile, the former FRU operative known only as Martin Ingram contacted An Phoblacht after last week's edition commented on an article he wrote for the Andersonstown News. In the article, Ingram had claimed that An Phoblacht had branded him a murderer and suggested he was at ``the bottom of the food chain''. Neither was in fact the case.

What An Phoblacht did, and hopes to do, is place Ingram's role and comments within the wider reality of the British Intelligence unit of which he was a part. I also suggested, in a gentle way I hoped, that to court obscurity and then complain of being misunderstood was inconsistent.

In response, Ingram faxed a reply, through a third party, to An Phoblacht's Belfast office. In the letter, the former FRU operative accepts the premise that the FRU actively colluded with loyalist death squads.

``The FRU as a Unit did conspire with Loyalist terrorists,'' writes Ingram, ``however the vast majority of the serving soldiers of that Unit did not consciously conspire or have contemporaneous knowledge of this activity. Nor would they in my opinion have tolerated this immoral and dastardly wicked activity if they had this knowledge.''

Commenting on his own particular case, Ingram writes: ``It would be accurate to say that I was aware in broad outline of the direction that Nelson was being manoeuvred towards in the 1987-1990 period, what I did not know at the time, nor do I now, is the exact detail of this activity.''

Ingram concludes: ``In the final analysis the RUC will, I believe, be asked to account for many of the problems that have been conveniently dropped at the feet of the FRU.''

During the current Stevens' investigation, Martin Ingram has emerged as a key witness. Indeed, at times, over two years into the probe and £100 million later, it has appeared as if he's been the only witness. When, late last year, Ingram withdraw his cooperation after being intimidated by former colleagues in the FRU, it appeared that the investigation was close to collapse.

At the time Ingram told Sunday Times journalist Liam Clarke that he ``felt like a rape victim because I've been forced to retract. I deserve a degree of protection from the state and cannot out my family in danger.''

Since then, the Stevens team have sought to reassure Ingram but to what effect remains unclear. Last week further speculation that the probe was about to collapse was rejected by a spokesperson from the Stevens' team. Such speculation, he said, was ``a blatant attempt to discredit a proper and thorough investigation.''

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