Published Date: 09.06.2016
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, has published a report this morning which reveals police informants at the most senior levels within Loyalist paramilitary organisations were involved in an importation of guns and ammunition into Northern Ireland in the mid to late Eighties.
PDF: Full public statement
The report has identified that two of the weapons from this shipment were connected to the UVF attack on the Heights Bar in Loughinisland on 18 June 1994, in which six people died and five others were injured; to the murders of two men in separate attacks and to a series of other terrorist incidents.
Police figures indicate that the unrecovered weapons from the importation were used in a least 70 murders and attempted murders.
This morning’s publication follows an investigation carried out by the Police Ombudsman’s Office following complaints from the families of those who lost their lives in the Loughinisland attack.*
The 160 page report makes public for the first time some of the detailed information informants provided and how this led to the recovery of a substantial amount of the imported weapons. But it also questions how a significant number ended up in the hands of Loyalist terrorists.
The investigation examined in detail some of the information police were receiving in the mid Eighties and early Nineties, how they used it and in particular how they investigated the Loughinisland attack.
Dr Maguire said the police approach to informants was a concern which appeared time and time again throughout this investigation:
“We have seen occasions when informants contributed to both the saving of life and the loss of life.
The report evidences instances when police were content not to ask these people for information about serious crime: instances when people volunteered such information and police chose not to act upon it and instances when informants were protected from investigation.
Some police officers appeared to have placed more value on gathering information and protecting their sources that on the prevention and detection of crime,” he said.
ARMS IMPORTATION AND DISTRIBUTION. ( REPORT 4:43- 4.200)
The Police Ombudsman’s investigation looked at attempts by Loyalists to import weapons into Northern Ireland in 1985 and the role played by the UDA member and former Army agent, Brian Nelson.
It has confirmed for the first time that a senior member of the UDA, who was also providing information to RUC Special Branch, played a central role in directing Nelson’s efforts, along with ‘security force oversight.’
It records that although these plans ran aground that year because of a lack of funding, Loyalists continued in their efforts, and police continued to receive information.
The Police Ombudsman has established that some of those involved in the importation had been under surveillance. This was part of a wider operation directed by police and which also involved the army. It was run from Special Branch Headquarters and had been in place for several months. The operation received information from a ‘reliable and well placed source within the higher echelons of the UDA.’
The report refers to information police received in January 1988 which said the weapons had arrived in Northern Ireland and provides some detail of events on 8 January, the day three members of the UDA travelled in cars from Belfast to collect their share of the shipment.
According to this information, those surveying the vehicles temporarily lost sight of them for 90 minutes in remote countryside. It was during this period that some of the weapons and ammunition was retrieved from where they had been hidden and loaded into the cars for the return journey to Belfast.
The cars were spotted again a short time later and police mounted a checkpoint on Mahon Road near Portadown, arrested the three men and recovered a substantial amount of the shipment.
The matter was immediately handed over to local detectives for investigation. The Police Ombudsman has found that while the majority of these officers acted as professionally as they could, Special Branch did not give them information about the police operation prior to the arrests.
Despite this, and through their own efforts, the detectives came to suspect the location from where the men retrieved these weapons may have been a farm. They then set about trying to find it, but without success.
Police later received information that the farm in question was the property of James Mitchell, a former RUC Reserve Constable, who had previously described it to police as ‘one of the main UVF arms dumps in mid Ulster’ and who had been convicted of terrorist offences in 1980.
“I can find no logical reason why police failed to identify this property as a possible hide for these weapons. Mitchell was already known to police. A police officer present when Mitchell made those comments about his farm was in the car on one of the occasions when detectives drove around looking for a farm where the weapons may have been stored, “said Dr Maguire.
The detective who led this investigation and another who assisted him have said they were not told about Mitchell’s farm, nor were aware of it. The lead officer told Police Ombudsman investigators that had he been given this information, he would have ‘taken the farm apart.’
The Police Ombudsman investigation has also seen information later received by police which reported that within two hours of the cars being stopped at Mahon Road, Mitchell was warned police were about to search his property and the weapons were then moved.
The next day, an army unit spent almost two hours carrying out a search at one of his properties, but found nothing. The Ombudsman’s investigation was not able to establish conclusively whether this search was connected to the events of the previous day.
Several weeks later, on 4 and 5 February, police recovered a significant number of firearms at Flush Road in north Belfast. These were believed to have been part of the importation.
On 19 October 1988 the three men arrested at Portadown were convicted at Belfast Crown Court of terrorist related offences.
Dr Maguire said informants who were involved in gun running were protected from police investigation:
“Despite being implicated in the importation of these weapons, senior members of the UVF, UDA and Ulster Resistance were not subject to police investigation.
This can be attributed to a decision by Special Branch not to disseminate intelligence implicating these individuals, some of whom were informants.
Given the gravity of the conspiracy and the impact it had on the lives of numerous citizens, this decision has proven in my view to be indefensible,” he said.
IMPORTED WEAPONS. (REPORT 4- 4:42)
Police ballistic records indicate that VZ58 assault rifles were used by Loyalist paramilitaries in more than 70 murders and attempted murders in Northern Ireland from March 1988. Many, if not all of them, are believed to have come from the shipment which arrived in January that year.
One in particular has been linked to the murder of Joseph Reynolds in east Belfast on 12 October 1993 and to the attack on McCabe’s butcher’s shop in Cromac Street in the city on 22 March 1994.
Several months later, it was the rifle used to shoot patrons in the Heights Bar in Loughinisland.
A weapon found near the rifle after the Loughinisland attack, a Browning pistol, is also believed to have come from the shipment. It has been linked to several other terrorist attacks before this, including the murder of Martin Lavery on the Crumlin Road in Belfast on 20 December 1992.
TERRORISM IN SOUTH DOWN IN THE LATE EIGHTIES/EARLY NINETIES (REPORT SECTION 5)
The Police Ombudsman’s report has considered aspects of terrorism in South Down in the late 1980s and early 1990s and how police responded to it.
In particular, it notes what seemed to be a practice by some police officers of placing more value on collecting information and protecting their sources than on preventing and detecting crime.
The investigation established that while the main focus of the local Special Branch had been almost entirely on gathering information about the IRA. However, following the murder of building contractor Jack Kielty in Dundrum in January 1988 it began to get information about a number of individuals suspected of involvement in Loyalist terrorism in the area.
The report shows that by mid 1993, Special Branch had information which alleged these individuals were involved in a series of terrorist incidents including a gun attack on the Thierafurth Inn near Castlewellan on 19 November 1992, in which Peter McCormack was killed, and the murder of Martin Lavery in north Belfast on 20 December that year.
The Police Ombudsman has established that most of the information police had begun to receive about this group from 1993 onwards was not passed to detectives investigating the attacks.
On one occasion, a document containing a particular piece of information was marked “NDD/Slow Waltz” (NDD = No Downward Dissemination and ‘Slow Waltz’ means share in slower time, if at all)
“During these years a series of incidents happened that police should have recognised as the escalating activities of a small but ruthless UVF unit operating in the area.
I recognise that there was a considerable amount of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland at the time, resources were stretched and it was a busy ‘intelligence environment.’
However, it is a matter of significant concern that Special Branch failed to pass on intelligence about the alleged activities of Loyalist paramilitaries, thereby protecting them from effective investigation.
Had this unit been subject to sustained investigation they may have been arrested, brought to justice and not have been involved in the Loughinisland attack, of which they were suspected.
Whether the attack would then have been carried out by another group will never be known,” said Dr Maguire.
POLICE INVESTIGATION OF THE TERRORIST ATTACK AT LOUGHINISLAND. (REPORT SECTIONS 7 & 8)
The Police Ombudsman has found that many police officers within the RUC and the PSNI worked tirelessly to bring those responsible for the Loughinisland shootings to justice.
Despite this, his report lists a number of fundamental failings in the investigation, including the forensic strategy, enquiries to find out more about the getaway car and those connected to it, enquiries to find witnesses and in the strategy for making arrests.
The Police Ombudsman investigation established that within 24 hours of the attack, Special Branch provided detectives with the names and details of people they believed responsible.
There was then a significant delay in arresting the suspects, with the result that evidential opportunities were lost.
The investigation also revealed that one person initially suspected of involvement in the Loughinisland shootings was an RUC informant.
It has also found that investigative opportunities were undermined by the way police conducted inquiries into the getaway car and those connected to it.
There is no evidence that the police officer who was tasked to speak to the last registered owner of the car was briefed about the significance of these enquiries and did not get any detailed information about where the vehicle was in the days before the attack.
Although police soon established the name and address given by the man who had bought the car from the last registered keeper the night before the shootings was that of a prominent member of the UDA, this was never properly followed up.
The Police Ombudsman investigation looked in detail at the man who owned the car after the last registered owner and who made a statement to police the day after the attack.
The Ombudsman found that the nature of the relationship between this person and two police officers in particular contributed to the flawed approach to these inquiries. However, the Ombudsman did not find any information to suggest this man was involved in the Loughinisland attack.
The police later received intelligence that the murder suspects were warned by a police officer they were going to be arrested when they were arrested for a second time later in 1994. This matter was not investigated by the police.
Dr Maguire noted that none of the information police were getting about the attack appeared to come from their senior sources within the UVF:
“I have found no evidence that sources were tasked with gathering specific information that could have assisted the murder investigation.
“This was a ‘hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ approach to the use of some informants, which potentially frustrated the police investigation,” he said.
OVERALL CONCLUSION. (REPORT SECTION 9)
The Police Ombudsman investigation found there have been many within the RUC and the PSNI who worked tirelessly to bring those responsible for the Loughinisland attack to justice.
It has found no evidence the security forces were aware the UVF were planning to mount an attack in Loughinisland.
However, it has also expressed significant concerns about the approach of some police officers to informants and the information such people were providing.
“The use of informants is an integral part of policing. But using them requires the balancing of the potential value of information they may provide with the knowledge that they may be involved in serious crime.
In this instance, the value of the information they provided led to the recovery of a large number of those weapons and police are to be commended. It is unlikely these items would have been recovered if there had not been informers within the ranks of loyalist paramilitaries.
But they were also involved in serious crime, namely the importation of weapons, some of which were not recovered and were used in at least 70 murders and attempted murders in Northern Ireland. There is no evidence that most of them were subject to police investigation.
I have considered the context of policing at the time. The RUC did not have the checks and balances and legislation in relation to the handling of informants that now exists in modern policing. They requested guidance from Government, but none was forthcoming.
‘However a lack of guidance does not excuse the actions of the intelligence world if individuals who were informers were protected from investigation,” he said.
Dr Maguire said his investigation also raises issues about how police were choosing to use the information such people were providing:
“Prior to the shootings in Loughinisland, there were a series of terrorist attacks which police should have recognised as the escalating activities of a small but ruthless UVF unit operating in south Down.
On occasions there was a failure to pass on relevant information to the detectives investigating these incidents in order to protect informants.”
His investigation also revealed that one person initially suspected of involvement in the Loughinisland shootings was an RUC informant at the time of the attack.
It has said Special Branch continued to engage in a relationship with sources they identified in intelligence reporting as likely to have been involved at some level in Loughinisland.
It has concluded that the desire by some to protect informants influenced police activity and undermined the investigation into those who carried out the killings that evening.
“The failure to bring the killers to justice cannot be explained solely by the problems with the investigation.
This report has evidenced many examples of failures to pass on intelligence to detectives engaged in the investigation of serious crime. Investigative lines of inquiry were not followed and individuals who might have been subject to detailed and robust investigation were effectively excluded from such consideration.
These represent more than ‘intelligence failures.’ At best they are indicative of an ‘intelligence mindset’ which placed the collection of information before the prevention and detection of crime,” said Dr Maguire.
Some of the bereaved families in Loughinisland have alleged that there was collusion between members of the RUC and those responsible for the murders.
Dr Maguire said he has taken the definition of collusion to be that given by Justice Smithwick, a definition accepted by the PSNI:
“Many of the individual issues I have identified in this report, including the protection of informants through wilful acts and the passive turning a blind eye; fundamental failures in the initial police investigation and the destruction of police records, are in themselves evidence of collusion as defined by Justice Smithwick.
When viewed collectively, I have no hesitation in saying collusion was a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders,” he said.
*The Police Ombudsman’s Office published a report in 2011 following an investigation into matters connected to the Loughinisland shootings. In preparing for a legal challenge from by families of those bereaved in the attack, the current Police Ombudsman reviewed that report and identified a number of areas which had not been previously been subject to investigation. He agreed to the report being quashed and commissioned a new investigation.