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Thursday, 8 February 2007

Shadow of the spooks

I know this has taken a while, but it’s difficult to know what I can add to the acres of discussion about the O’Loan report – the Police Ombudsman’s report into Mount Vernon is available here (pdf) and readers might also be interested in this article by Liam Ó Ruairc of the IRSP. Although I’m not in total agreement with Liam – among other things, I’m dubious about his description of Henry McDonald as a “reputable journalist” – he gives a good overview of the situation.

The first thing to say is to pay tribute to the courage and tenacity of Raymond McCord, without whose determination to see justice done for his son the investigation probably wouldn’t have happened. Also this represents good work by Mrs O’Loan herself, in the face of persistent and long-term obstruction by a force in which RUC officers still rule the roost, and where the prevailing culture is that the cops are under no obligation whatsoever to be accountable to anyone for anything.

What’s disappointing about the O’Loan report – at least the published part – is that it doesn’t fundamentally tell us anything we didn’t already know. Anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear knew that the peelers were running gangs of loyalist killers for decades. What the O’Loan report does, though, is lay out enough evidence to make the strategy impossible to deny – not that that has stopped unionists from trying.

What transpires is that, during the dozen years that Mark Haddock was a police informer, he was involved in at least 16 murders, 10 attempted murders and scores of other crimes that we know about. And over these years the cops gave him £80,000. Now bear in mind the Mount Vernon death squad was one small section of the UVF – an investigation into Robin Jackson and Billy Wright’s activities in Portadown would almost certainly reveal the same scenario on a bigger scale. What this means, in effect, is that for decades on end the Brits had a small army of Fred Wests and Dr Shipmans running around, doing their dirty work on the state payroll. And in fact the state actively covered up for them, as O’Loan details when describing the phoney interviews and destroyed evidence. This of course is totally consistent with Jonty Brown’s description of the Special Branch modus operandi.

Now let’s look at the “security” justifications. This comes into play because former RUC Special Branch boss Chris Albiston, latterly head of the colonial police in Kosovo, stated in the Telegraph that mere laypeople (and implicitly, especially not uppity Catholic women) couldn’t judge operational decisions. But the main justification for running informers is to protect the public from worse crimes that might be committed – allowing informers to commit mass murder is hardly consistent with that. Again, the relationship between handler and informer means that any informer can be called in at any time and ordered to turn Queen’s evidence, but that seems never to have occurred to Special Branch. Not to mention that the Mount Vernon UVF was so riddled with informers that it could have been closed down at will.

The affair also points up the key difference between republicans and loyalists. It is true that informers in the Provos, some at a very high level – and who really thinks Scap and Donaldson are the end of that story? – were left in place for a long time and allowed to get away with all sorts of murky deeds. But the Provos were ostensibly a revolutionary movement aiming at the overthrow of the northern colony, which is why informing was a capital offence. The loyalist gangs, on the other hand, saw themselves as a “gloves-off” extension of the state forces, and it is clear that the feeling was mutual.

Probably more interesting is the political reaction. Unionism has reacted in the predictable way – Jeffrey Boy Donaldson referred to a handful of bad apples, and that view was echoed by the DUP’s Policing Board representatives under the leadership (I use the term lightly) of Ian Óg Paisley. The OUP, meanwhile, in the persons of Lord Ken Maginnis and Dirty Dave Burnside, has been even deeper in denial, protesting about the apparent “witch-hunt” against Special Branch. This is of a piece with the OUP’s recent and not entirely unsuccessful efforts to outflank the DUP on the far right.

Nationalism, meanwhile, has proclaimed that “that was then, this is now”. The SDLP of course is covering it ass, pretending that its membership of the Policing Board since 2001 has forced radical changes. The Provos, on a parallel track, have argued that the O’Loan report demonstrates why they should join policing structures in order to, um, force radical changes.

Here’s why I think this approach lacks credibility. The sealed part of the O’Loan report is probably much more interesting than the published part. Most commentators’ guess is that this part deals with the role of MI5 and its influence over Special Branch. People with any kind of attention span will have noticed that MI5 is due to take over anti-subversion responsibilities in the “Province” later in the year. To this end, it is building a whopping great new headquarters outside Belfast, which should itself cast doubt on the Gerryites’ boasting that British withdrawal is on the cards. Not to mention that MI5’s Norn Iron operation is stuffed full of, you’ve guessed it, former RUC Special Branch officers.

That was then, this is now? More like plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


The Great Wee Azoo said...

That's my UVF/RUC graphic in your piece. It's OK. I approve.

splinteredsunrise said...

Thanks - I was looking for an illustration and thought it was a very nice graphic. Gets the point across.