Published Date: 28.09.2017
An investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s Office has rejected claims that police could have prevented a break-in at Castlereagh police station in 2002, but chose not to for political reasons and in order to protect an informant.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said his investigators had interviewed former senior Special Branch officers and conducted a detailed review of police files.
These included intelligence records covering a two year period before the break-in, as well records from the police investigation into the burglary.
They found no evidence that police had any advance information which would have allowed them to prevent or disrupt the raid.
Police initially considered the possibility that the military or security agencies had been responsible.
In fact, they discovered that police had initially considered the possibility that elements of the military or security community had been responsible, and it was only later that attention switched to the IRA.
The high-profile break-in at a facility known as Room 220 – which housed the Special Branch 24 hour agent telephone desk – happened on 17 March 2002.
A number of assailants overpowered a police officer before escaping with a significant amount of extremely sensitive information.
In the wake of the raid, police advised a number of people, including former and serving police officers, that information about them was amongst the material taken from the police station.
Several former police officers subsequently sued the Chief Constable for negligence and breach of statutory duty.
One of those former officers also alleged that police had advance warning about the raid and could have prevented it, but chose not to.
He claimed an informant was involved, and said the break-in had been allowed to happen in order to maintain that informant’s cover, as well as for broader political reasons.
In October 2015, the Chief Constable asked the Police Ombudsman to conduct an independent investigation into these claims.
Police Ombudsman investigators interviewed the former officer who made the allegations (Man A). He had retired from the police in the year before the break-in, having spent more than a quarter of a century working in Special Branch.
He said he had been told by a former colleague (Man B) that police had received information prior to the aggravated burglary that the IRA were planning to break in to a police facility, and knew this to refer to Castlereagh.
He claimed Man B had told him that Special Branch held documentation confirming this to be the case.
He added that another former colleague (Man C), had told him that police had received advance information about the exact nature of the break-in, and said senior police were aware of this information.
Man A, however, provided no documentary evidence in support of his claims.
Police Ombudsman investigators contacted both Man B and Man C. Man C said he had provided all relevant details to the police during their investigation of the break-in, and had nothing further to add.
Man B acknowledged that there had been some talk between officers that the PSNI may have had prior knowledge about the break-in, but he dismissed it as speculation and said he had never seen any information to confirm it.
He also revealed that Man A had been in regular contact with him after leaving the police, but said this contact had become less frequent as Man A had repeatedly asked him to divulge sensitive information, which he had refused to do.
He suggested that Man A must have been confused about what he had heard, and said his interpretation was inaccurate.
Former Special Branch officer said the claims were based on an inaccurate interpretation.
He also remarked that if it could be proven that the police had prior knowledge, then those affected – including himself and Man A - would have received a substantially greater amount of damages than they did.
A number of other former officers who had held key positions at the time of the break-in were spoken to by Police Ombudsman investigators.
One described the allegations as “a complete fabrication”, while another questioned the credibility of Man A’s account.
The latter explained that suspicion had initially focused on serving or former members of the intelligence community and/or military, and said he was surprised to learn that the IRA had later became the main suspects.
This was corroborated by a review of documentation from the police investigation. Police Ombudsman investigators examined information about the police’s primary initial hypothesis as to who was responsible, about their investigative strategies, the flow of intelligence and the main lines of enquiry.
This revealed that in the early stages police believed that the burglary must have had inside assistance, and an early hypothesis was that it had been carried out by elements of the intelligence community or the military.
Whilst the involvement of paramilitaries had been considered, it was felt that they would not have had the capabilities of conducting such an operation.
It was only later that the focus shifted and the principal theory became that the burglary had been carried out by the IRA.
Investigators examined two years of police intelligence, but found nothing specific which would have allowed police to prevent or disrupt the break-in.
Police Ombudsman investigators also conducted a detailed review of intelligence held by police in the two years prior to the burglary.
They found information of potential relevance, but it provided no specific details about the nature of the threat or the possibility of thwarting it.
Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said: “There was nothing to suggest that police had received any specific information that would have allowed them to prevent or disrupt the burglary.
“In fact everything suggests that that was not the case.
“The only information of a possible security threat that we found in police records was general and non-specific in nature, and offered nothing which would have allowed police to take preventative measures.”
Enquiries also established that a book handed over to police by Man A at the end of his career, which he said contained names of his contacts over the years, had not been among the items stolen, as he had feared.