Collusion - policy of the British state

The official report into collusion between loyalist death squads and the British state only confirms what was common knowledge, writes Liam O Ruairc of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. He also notes (below) that the report has been used by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to justify cooperation with the Northern Ireland police

On January 22, the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland published her report on collusion between the police and the Mount Vernon Ulster Volunteer Force death squad in the 1991-2003 period. The report found that special branch officers knew their informer, Mark Haddock, and his gang were involved in over a dozen murders, and not only allowed him to continue his killing spree: they protected him from investigation by police colleagues and paid him (at least) £79,840 for his work as a police agent.

His monthly retainer was even increased from £100 to £160 in 1993 shortly after he had been identified as the main suspect in the murder of a catholic woman known as 'the Good Samaritan killing'. Officers also created false interview notes, destroyed evidence and 'babysat' Haddock during police interviews. Searches for UVF arms were blocked by special branch for no valid reason and intelligence was withheld - for example, information about a planned bomb attack on a Sinn Féin office in Monaghan in 1997 was not passed on to the Garda.

The police ombudsman's report is significant for a number of reasons. First, it concludes that collusion was sanctioned at a very high level: "It would be easy to blame the junior officers' conduct ... and indeed they are not blameless. However, they could not have operated as they did without the knowledge and support at the highest levels of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland" ("Right to the top" was the headline of The Belfast Telegraph of January 22).

Secondly it finds that this may not have been an isolated pattern. Collusion was not restricted to this place and that period.

Thirdly, there was an attempted cover-up. Key police records were destroyed, preventing senior police officers from being held to account, and false interview notes were created: "This was not an oversight, but was a deliberate strategy that had the effect of avoiding proper accountability."

Half of the retired RUC officers contacted by the ombudsman's office did not respond to the enquiry. Two retired assistant chief constables, seven detective chief superintendents and two detective superintendents were among 40 officers who refused to be interviewed. Those who accepted provided evasive, contradictory, farcical and untrue answers and delayed requests for information for up to two and a half years.

Fourthly, files were sent to the director of public prosecutions, but no charges have been brought. This clearly challenges media and academic presentation of collusion as being a matter of individual 'bad apples'. Allegations of collusion between loyalist death squads and security forces go back right to the early 70s. They were usually dismissed by mainstream media as republican conspiracy theories. Matters were made more difficult by the fact that they sometimes relied on highly disputed sources. When evidence for collusion was irrefutable, commentators minimised its extent, arguing that it was the exception rather than the norm.

Various investigations, however, are increasingly pointing towards the fact that collusion was an institutional phenomenon. On November 29 2006, an Irish parliamentary sub-committee concluded in its report: "We now have enough information to be fully satisfied not only that [collusion] occurred, but that it was widespread." The sub-committee (part of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice) was considering Henry Barron's report - which was published in July - on nine incidents claiming 18 lives; including the bombing of Kay's Tavern in Dundalk, the Three Star Inn in Castleblaney, and the attack on the Miami Showband. The sub-committee found acts of "international terrorism" involving British security forces. It was "horrified" that people employed by the British authorities to protect people were "engaged in the creation of violence and the butchering of innocent victims".

An independent international panel of legal experts examined 25 cases of suspected loyalist paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland during 1972-77, involving a total of 76 murders. In 24 of the 25 cases and 74 of the 76 murders, evidence suggests collusion by members of the RUC or Ulster Defence Regiment.

Earlier reports pointed in a similar direction. Retired Canadian judge Peter Cory's reports on a number of controversial killings found evidence for collusion. The publication of just 15 pages of Metropolitan police commissioner John Stephen's 3,000-page report on April 17 2003 showed how British agents targeted republicans for the loyalist death squads and provided them with intelligence to undertake their activities. London refused to cooperate with the Irish government's Barron investigation into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of May 17 1974 which left 33 people dead, the biggest loss of life during the 'troubles'. British collusion in the bombings had always been documented.

Files recently unearthed in the national archives in London provided the first documented evidence of large-scale collusion and confirmed successive prime ministers were made aware of it. A key military intelligence file from 1973 entitled 'Subversion in the UDR' estimated that 5%-15% of UDR soldiers were linked to loyalists. The document added that the "best single source of weapons, and only significant source of modern weapons, for protestant extremist groups, has been the UDR".

It is also claimed that more than 200 army rifles and sub-machine guns passed into loyalist hands after being listed as either stolen or lost. A memo of a briefing in September 1975 involving prime minister Harold Wilson and Tory leader Margaret Thatcher records: "Unfortunately there were certain elements in the police who were very close to the UVF, and who were prepared to hand over information, for example, to Mr [Ian] Paisley. The army's judgment was that the UDR were heavily infiltrated by extremist protestants."10 

The British state is attempting to cover up its actions. Its reaction to Judge Corry's call in 2004 for an inquiry into murders in which he found indications of collusion was to rush through a law making it impossible for the truth to be uncovered. To prevent inquiries the government introduced the 2005 Inquiries Act to wreck the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act.

Reputable journalists who have written extensively on loyalism - David McKittrick or Henry McDonald, for example - have always argued that the campaigns by loyalist death squads had been spontaneous and autonomous; that they had not been created or controlled by the British state. This can be questioned by asking whether the campaign waged by loyalist death squads would have had the same intensity had they not been armed, trained and directed by security forces. In the six-year period from January 1982 to December 1987, loyalists killed 71 people, 49 of those being "sectarian assassinations". In the six years from January 1988 to their ceasefire on October 13 1994, they were responsible for 229 deaths, 207 of which were sectarian.11 

During the 1980s, loyalist groups had been responsible for about 25% of conflict-related deaths, but from the early 1990s onwards they were responsible for well over 50%, outgunning republicans. That is an absolute increase of over 300% and a relative increase of over 100%. How was that possible? Corry's report found that the British army had funded an arms-buying trip by loyalist agent, Brian Nelson, to South Africa in the mid-1980s. This consignment of illegal weapons, which Ulster Defence Association intelligence officer Nelson had been instrumental in acquiring, arrived in the north of Ireland in January 1988. The vast majority of today's loyalist arms stockpiles were imported by Nelson with the knowledge of the British army. Ballistic records show that at least 95 people were directly killed in that period by South African weapons.12 

British intelligence has a significant responsibility for reviving loyalist death squads, which were largely moribund by the mid-1980s.13  For example, Johnny Adair's Ulster Freedom Fighters - and Haddock's UVF gang - were responsible for nearly all sectarian murders of catholics in north Belfast in the 1990s.Both gangs were run by RUC special branch. Adair's UFF unit would become one of the most prolific loyalist killing machines in the history of the north, responsible for more than 30 murders.

Retired CID detective Johnston Brown, whose evidence secured the conviction of Johnny Adair in 1995, believes the loyalist killer could have been put behind bars "years earlier": "Virtually all of the evidence used to convict Adair was available years before he was actually brought to book," Brown told the Sunday Business Post. "I have to wonder why the authorities sat on that information for so long."14  Leading loyalist and Adair's right-hand man John White turned out to be a police informer.15 

Plenty of other leading loyalists have been found out to be agents. Torrens Knight, who was part of the loyalist gang which sprayed the Rising Sun bar in the village of Greysteel with bullets, killing eight people and injuring 19 in the 'trick or treat' massacre on Halloween night 1993, and had murdered four catholic workmen in nearby Castlerock seven months earlier, was paid an annual salary of £50,000 as an informer.16 

The vast majority of victims targeted by loyalist death squads were catholic civilians with no involvement in politics or republicanism. The purpose was to terrorise them into pressurising republicans to call off their armed struggle. They were largely successful, although murders carried out by loyalist death squads certainly facilitated the peace process and accelerated the Provisional IRA ceasefire of 1994.

The question is, would all this have been possible without British state collusion?