Omagh controversy adds to reform fears

by Bobbie Heatley and David Granville

AN ABSOLUTE need for thorough reform of policing in the north was clearly identified by the report of the Patten commission -- the product of an international panel of policing experts -- in the wake of the Good Friday agreement.

At the time, Trimble decried the report as the "shabbiest piece of work" that he had ever seen and Peter Mandelson, the then proconsul, duly legislated significant areas of it out of existence to appease unionist concerns.

Patten commissioner Maurice Hayes, a high-profile public servant in the north, is among those to have expressed his disappointment at the retention of the Special Branch as a 'force within a force'. He acknowledges that the "mishandling" has resulted in nationalists and republicans losing confidence in the new policing arrangements.

Fellow Patten commissioners Clifford Shearing and Gerard Lynch have been even more scathing of the British government's response.

Towards the end of last year Sinn Féin set out why it has resisted all blandishments and pressures to join the new Policing Board, arguing that the present legislation falls short of the Patten recommendations in key areas. The new body, which oversees policing in the north, has no authority to hold the chief constable and police service to account -- powers retained by the secretary of state and the chief constable -- and preserves (unionist) partisan political control, the party argues.

Sinn Féin and civil rights groups also point out that the PSNI remains unrepresentative, fails the human-rights test by excusing former RUC officers from having to swear the new human-rights oath, retains the Special Branch as a 'force within a force' and is devoid of the national and democratic consensus sought by Patten.

Some, including US president Bush's envoy Richard Haass, have argued that the way in which to secure the full Patten Report reforms is for Sinn Féin to join the board alongside the SDLP and to fight for them in that arena.

That would produce nothing other than interminable wrangling and deadlock. The board is heavily weighted with UUP and DUP diehards whose aim is to keep the substance of the RUC intact inside the shell of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has appointed its 'independent' representatives to sit on the board. Whatever the personal perceptions of these people, few believe they were chosen to become thorns in the side of the establishment.

Already the SDLP has felt itself constrained to make a retreat from Patten on the adoption of new policing symbols. These were meant to be free of one-sided political/constitutional content but the 'royal' crown has reappeared phoenix-like in the 'new' emblem.

In the context of the north of Ireland this outcome has a telling significance. What has the conflict been all about if not respect for the sovereignty aspirations -- and equal treatment -- of nationalists and republicans?

More recent developments also raise questions about the seriousness of the NIO's commitment to fully implementing the GFA reforms.

PSNI's chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, and current British proconsul John Reid are under scrutiny over their response to the Ombudsman's report into the police investigation of the dissident Real-IRA's bombing of Omagh in 1998.

Her report, published in December, was scathing about RUC's handling of the investigation, under the leadership of Flanagan and accused the intelligence agencies of, at least, negligence or of prioritising the protection of informants.

Towards the end of January it became clear that Nuala O'Loan's full report to the British secretary had confirmed that a book documenting paramilitary threats went 'missing' during the inquiry into police handling of the Omagh bombing.

O'Loan's report made the chief constable incandescent with rage, to the point where he threatened to commit suicide in public if any of the accusations were proved to be correct.

More realistically, he wasted no time in assembling a team of twelve police officers, aided by legal advisors, to produce a counter report aimed at largely exonerating the chief constable and the RUC's handling of the Omagh investigation. This is one area of policing that Flanagan and the PSNI/RUC can be said to have some considerable experience of.

Published on 24 January, the report admits to 'some deficiencies' but attempts to rebut the main charges of incompetence and the most serious charge that the intelligence services had prior knowledge of the bombing.

One thing is certain, given the composition of the new police board, backing for Flanagan and the RUC conduct of the Omagh investigation is hardly in dispute. In December, Special Branch informer and UDA man, William Stobie was murdered by loyalists following the collapse of his trial for involvement in the murder of civil rights lawyer Martin Finucane.

The trial was abandoned, despite a confession by Stobie, when a witness was excused from giving evidence on the grounds of ill health. Stobie had nevertheless indicated that he would be willing to appear at any subsequent public inquiry. Shortly afterwards he was shot dead. His killers remain free.

On 16 January a Mr McCullough was found dead on Belfast's Cave Hill. Initially the press reported the incident as the case of accidental death. It transpired that just a matter of hours before he sustained this 'accident'; Mr McCullough had approached a member of the Royal Irish Regiment and offered to provide information about the murder of Belfast postal worker McColgan's (see also Appeal For End End to Sectarian Terror).

The RIR soldier contacted the PSNI. Later, Mr McCullough was arrested on suspicion of drink driving. Shortly after he left the police station he was found dead on the hill. Public curiosity was aroused, however, when it transpired that Mr McCullough was a UDA member from Rathcoole, the place where the young postal worker had been assassinated.

This case too has been referred to the Ombudsman but, given the reception from unionism to her Omagh investigation, it will be interesting to see what will happen to this one if it is in any way critical of the PSNI.

RUC man fears for life

A RETIRED RUC officer fears that he could be killed by former colleagues and their loyalist allies because he knows too much about the 1989 murder of Pat Finucane. Ex-CID man Johnson Brown believes that the RUC’s Special Branch is encouraging loyalist paramilitaries to kill him. He is now trying to draw attention to his plight in a desperate bid to save himself.

Brown has claimed that he was present when a loyalist RUC double-agent confessed to the 1989 killing of Patrick Finucane, a prominent defence lawyer. The RUC and British army are widely believed to have assisted in the killing, but the British government has long refused a public inquiry into the case.

According to Brown, the killer’s confession was taped by a Special Branch member in 1991, whose car they were all in at the time. Brown claims that the Special Branch man then blocked his attempt to obtain a second ‘controlled’ confession that would have stood up better in court. Brown was outranked, so he dropped the matter.

When English detective John Stevens reopened the case in 1999, he found the relevant tape had disappeared and had been replaced with another, which contained no confession.

“In my opinion, if a man admits murder, you set up up a sting, and then you charge him with murder,” Brown said recently during an interview by the Boston Herald. Brown is fearful following the UDA murder in December of William Stobie, the group's own former quartermaster and RUC informer, who was acquitted of involvement in the Finucane murder in November.

Stobie had accused Special Branch both of ignoring his two tipoffs -- on the night of Finucaneís murder -- that a top Catholic was about to be killed, and of doing nothing when he subsequently gave them the killers names. (RMD)

February/March 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 10:28:16.
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