A police watchdog investigating a series of loyalist murders during the Troubles has found evidence of collusive behaviour among some officers but said the Royal Ulster Constabulary had no prior knowledge of the attacks.
The Police Ombudsman’s report raised “significant concerns” about the conduct of the RUC in relation to 19 murders and multiple attempted murders carried out by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (the UFF was a cover name used by the UDA) between 1989 and 1993.
Concerns included RUC Special Branch’s use of informants that were themselves suspected of murder.
A senior PSNI officer has apologised for the findings of the report and said police remain committed to bringing those responsible for the murders to justice.
The 11 attacks examined by Ombudsman Marie Anderson included the notorious massacre at the Rising Sun Bar in Greysteel, Co Londonderry in October 1993 – an attack that claimed eight lives.
She also probed four murders committed in March of that year in the village of Castlerock, also in Co Derry.
Only one of the murders under investigation – the killing of Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton in Co Donegal in May 1991 – happened outside the north west of Northern Ireland.
All of the crimes were carried out by the north west unit of the UDA/UFF.
Publishing a 336-page investigation report, Mrs Anderson said she had identified a number of significant concerns and was of the view that concerns raised by bereaved families about collusive behaviours were legitimate and justified.
Her findings included:
– Intelligence and surveillance failings which led to the arming of the North West UDA/UFF with military assault rifles.
– Failure to warn a number of individuals of threats to their lives.
– Failure by police to adequately address UDR officers passing information to loyalist paramilitaries.
– Deliberate destruction of records relating to informants who were suspected of having been involved in serious criminality including murder.
– Failure to disseminate all relevant intelligence to police officers investigating a number of the attacks.
– Failures in the use and handling of informants suspected of being involved in serious criminality including murder.
The ombudsman’s report was not wholly critical of the RUC and said that generally the investigations into the crimes were “prompt and thorough”.
She highlighted that a number of people responsible for the attacks had been brought to justice and convicted.
“The majority of intelligence obtained by Special Branch was shared with murder investigation teams in a timely manner,” she said.
“Arrests were made and, where evidence existed, files submitted to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions). A number of individuals were prosecuted and convicted”.
The ombudsman said she had identified a number of instances where the RUC’s Special Branch had obtained information from informants which may have disrupted the activities of the UDA/UFF and “may have saved lives” as a result.
Mrs Anderson said she had found no evidence that any police officer had committed a criminal offence by protecting an informant from arrest and/or prosecution.
However, the ombudsman sent two evidence files on other suspected criminality by two former police officers to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).
One was suspected of passing sensitive information to loyalist paramilitaries and the other of failing to disclose in a file to the then Director of Public Prosecutions that a suspect was also an informant.
The PPS has directed that neither of the former officers should be prosecuted.
Mrs Anderson said her investigation was “complex and lengthy”.
The watchdog found that the RUC had been aware of the growing threat posed by the North West UDA/UFF from early 1989 onwards, with intelligence indicating that the paramilitaries had acquired military assault rifles from a loyalist weapons importation in 1987.
These weapons were first used in the murder of Gerard Casey in Rasharkin, Co Antrim in April 1989.
She added: “My investigation has established that weapons, believed to have been part of this importation, were subsequently used in other North West UDA/UFF attacks between 1989 and 1993, following the murder or Mr Casey.”
The ombudsman said an initial failure by the RUC to ensure that it had adequate intelligence about the activities of the North West UDA/UFF led to an inability “to effectively counteract the threat posed by them which began to emerge in 1989”.
She said the paramilitary grouping had been involved in “significant intelligence-gathering activities” during this period, with the names of hundreds of people from the republican and nationalist communities discovered in loyalist “intelligence caches” between November 1989 and February 1992.
“I am of the view that police were aware of the growing threat posed by the North West UDA/UFF from 1989 onwards,” said Mrs Anderson.
“This increased threat, however, was not initially accompanied by a policing response proportionate to the increased risk to members of the republican and nationalist communities.”
The ombudsman expressed concern that a number of individuals whose names were discovered in the hands of loyalists received no warning from police that their lives might be at risk – something that contravened RUC Force Orders.
She said there was also no evidence that police conducted risk assessments on these individuals.
The ombudsman said of the 11 attacks investigated, seven involved the targeting of individuals whose names had appeared in the loyalist caches.
Six of the 19 people murdered were on the lists, as was the survivor of one of the attacks, Patrick McErlain.
The ombudsman said she was unable to conclude that threat warnings would have been sufficient to protect these people. However, she said warnings would have enabled them to review their personal safety measures.
"I am of the view that allegations of RUC officers passing information of use to terrorists was a serious matter that should have been investigated robustly and consistently," she said.
Mrs Anderson raised a variety of concerns about the use and management of informants.
She said police had continued to use a number of informants when they ought to have been aware that those people had failed to provide information about the activities of the North West UDA/UFF.
Mrs Anderson said some informants were allowed to continue in their roles despite Special Branch possessing intelligence that they were involved in serious criminality, including murder.
“I am of the view that this illustrated a practice on the part of some RUC Special Branch officers to recruit, and continue to use, informants suspected of involvement in serious criminality, including murder, contrary to applicable RUC policy at the time,” she said.
The ombudsman also expressed concern that police had failed to deal appropriately with members of the security forces suspected of passing information to loyalists.
She said while some of these rogue security force members had been properly investigated, there were instances where RUC and UDR personnel were not subject to criminal probes, despite intelligence linking them to serious offences.
The ombudsman said these individuals were instead “dismissed or repositioned”.
“I am of the view that the RUC response to these matters was both inconsistent and inadequate,” she said.
Mrs Anderson referred in particular to a failure to properly investigate suspicions that UDR members and RUC officers in the north west had passed information to terrorists or had otherwise assisted their activities.
”I am of the view that allegations of RUC officers passing information of use to terrorists was a serious matter that should have been investigated robustly and consistently,” she added.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said: “The Police Ombudsman’s report into this series of murders and attempted murders brings to the fore once again the horror and pain for all communities of Northern Ireland’s past.
“These were appalling crimes carried out by those with evil intent.
“We are very aware of the hurt and anger felt by the families of those killed and those injured and we apologise to the families for the findings in this report.
“The peace process has changed the context for policing.
“The PSNI now have greatly improved policies and procedures which guide our response to potential threats and how we approach criminal investigations and the management of intelligence.
“The PSNI Ireland remains firmly committed to bringing those responsible for these murders to justice.”
The PSNI this week arrested a suspect as part of the investigation into the murder of Daniel Cassidy in Kilrea in 1992.
The chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Mark Lindsay, said he was disappointed that the phrase “collusive behaviour” was used by the Ombudsman “without any evidence that could be tested in a criminal court”.