Murder of Damien Walsh: “Significant investigative failures and collusive behaviours” by police

Published Date: 22.07.2021

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Marie Anderson, has identified significant investigative failures by the RUC in relation to the murder of 17-year-old Damien Walsh in 1993, as well as evidence of ‘collusive behaviours’ by police.

Damien was shot dead at the Dairy Farm complex in west Belfast on 25 March 1993 by members of the UDA/UFF. The complex was under security force surveillance at the time. No one has been charged or convicted in relation to the attack, in which another man was injured.

PDF: Damien Walsh - full public statement

Mrs Anderson said her investigation of a complaint from Damien’s mother, Mrs Marian Walsh, found no evidence that police were actively involved, had advance knowledge of the attack, or could have stopped the gunmen before the murder.

However, she said police failed to capitalise on a series of significant investigative opportunities, including failing to arrest suspects, not conducting searches of their homes and failing to ensure that important forensic enquiries were undertaken.

Mrs Anderson also identified “collusive police behaviours” such as failing to share important intelligence with the senior investigating officer (SIO) leading the police murder investigation, and failing to advise him that the complex had been under security force surveillance. 

The Police Ombudsman added that police made “a deliberate decision” to disregard intelligence about the threat posed by ‘C Company’ of the UDA/UFF at the time. She said that by stopping their surveillance of the group for an eight day period starting three days before Damien’s murder, the RUC allowed the group to operate without the same “levels of constraint” that previously applied.

‘C Company’ murdered two people and attempted to kill two others during this period. Mrs Anderson said the RUC’s failure during this time to reassess the decision to remove surveillance on the group “constituted collusive behaviour.”

The findings are set out in a 108-page report which deals with the issues raised by Mrs Walsh, who expressed concerns about the police investigation and alleged collusion between police and the murderers.

The surveillance operation at the Dairy Farm complex had been conducted in anticipation of the IRA moving fertiliser intended for use in bombs. The fertiliser was stored in a unit two doors away from the coal bunker unit in which Damien was working.

“There was no indication that Damien was specifically targeted,” said Mrs Anderson. “The then Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, stated at the time that Damien was not involved in the paramilitaries and was completely innocent.”

Failure to reinstate surveillance on ‘C Company’

In early 1993, the RUC had conducted surveillance on ‘C Company’ and one of its prominent members, Person A, and had used disruption tactics to frustrate their attempts to murder Nationalists in west Belfast.

Intelligence suggested that these activities were proving effective. In the month before Damien’s murder, police received intelligence from a number of sources that Person A was being frustrated by increased police activity which was preventing him launching attacks in west Belfast.

He was reported to have been seen targeting for murder bids in a number of Nationalist areas predominantly in west Belfast during February and March 1993, and there was information that members of his team had attempted to murder a Nationalist in mid-March.

Police also received information that he had obtained handguns. He was arrested around this time and questioned. Searches were undertaken, but no guns were found and he was released without charge.

The surveillance on ‘C Company’ was suspended on 22 March 1993 as police focused their surveillance resources on the Dairy Farm and another operation against PIRA.

Two days later, ‘C Company’ murdered Peter Gallagher at the Westlink Enterprise Centre in west Belfast.

Damien was murdered the following day, and there were two grenade attacks by ‘C Company’ in the eight day period during which surveillance on the group was suspended.

“I am of the view that police ought to have undertaken a risk assessment and considered resuming the surveillance operation during this period given the developing intelligence picture, the attacks that were taking place, and the risk of further attacks on the Nationalist community in west Belfast,” said Mrs Anderson.

“The failure to do so allowed ‘C Company’ greater scope to mount terrorist attacks on the Nationalist community, culminating in the murders of Peter Gallagher and Damien.

“Although the decision to suspend surveillance cannot be directly linked to Damien’s murder, I am of the view that it indirectly contributed to creating an environment whereby ‘C Company’ could operate without the levels of constraint previously placed on them by police.

“I believe that the failure to proactively address the identified threat posed by ‘C Company’ during this period disregarded that threat. In my view this amounted to a deliberate decision that constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police.”

Mrs Anderson pointed out, however, that Damien was not mentioned in any of the intelligence received by police prior to the murder, and said police had no forewarning of the attack.

 “It happened with such speed that there was no opportunity for police to stop it,” she said.

Information withheld from the SIO

Mrs Anderson also voiced concern about “significant failures” in the police investigation of Damien’s murder. These included failures to arrest and interview suspects, to share intelligence with the murder investigation team, and missed opportunities to link suspects to the murder weapon, the getaway car and the murder scene.

The SIO leading the murder enquiry was not told that the Dairy Farm had been under surveillance at the time of the murder. Police officers involved in the operation noted military radio transmissions detailing the arrival of the gunmen’s car, the discharge of shots and the gunmen making their escape.

“The military personnel who made these reports were eyewitnesses to murder,” said Mrs Anderson.

"My investigation found no documented reason why the SIO was not told about the surveillance operation. It deprived him of the opportunity to interview security force personnel who witnessed the attack.    

“I am of the view that this was a deliberate decision that directly impeded the police investigation and constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police.”

Similarly, the SIO was not told about intelligence that an associate of Person A had access to a house in west Belfast where five people were believed to have met in the hours after Damien’s murder, or that members of Person A’s team were suspected of involvement.

Intelligence indicating that the UDA/UFF had received information from a police officer which informed their attack on the Dairy Farm was also withheld from the SIO, as was intelligence suggesting that the group had received information from “British intelligence”.

In addition, police received information in early May 1993 that a number of people were involved in Damien’s murder. Mrs Anderson said her enquiries had found no explanation as to why Special Branch did not provide this information to the SIO until 9 July 1993.

 “I believe that the failure to share, in a timely manner, these pieces of intelligence with the SIO were deliberate decisions that constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police,” said Mrs Anderson.

“I am of the view that these failures arose from police policies designed to safeguard sources of information.”

Mrs Anderson added that the “targeted nature of the attack, near to a unit being used by PIRA to store fertiliser for the purposes of making explosives, suggested that the gunmen had prior knowledge of PIRA activities at the Dairy Farm.”

Investigative opportunities missed

Mrs Anderson also found that although the SIO had acted promptly and undertaken a number of investigative actions to progress aspects of the murder investigation - including house-to-house enquiries, a scene reconstruction and some forensic examinations - he failed to fully capitalise on the investigative leads that were open to him.

He was given the names of seven people who were suspected of involvement in murdering Damien. Only three were arrested, and only one of those was questioned in relation to Damien’s murder.

An identification parade organised in relation to the man who was arrested did not happen as some witnesses were unavailable and others pulled out, and there is no evidence that it was reorganised.

Hair samples were taken from the three men who were arrested and compared against hairs recovered from the car and balaclavas used by the gunmen, with negative results. However, Mrs Anderson said none of the suspects’ homes were searched for evidence which might link to the murder.

“In fact there is no evidence that the home of any suspect was searched during the investigation and as a result opportunities to seize items such as clothing and footwear for forensic tests, including gunshot residue tests, were missed.”

Similarly, a number of items found in the stolen car used by the gunmen were not forensically examined, and the SIO failed to make enquiries relating to a blue Ford Escort car associated with a number of suspects and linked to the murders of Damien and Peter Gallagher.

Mrs Anderson noted that although both murders were suspected to have been committed by C Company, police did not link the cases, limiting the scope of investigative opportunities.

“There was a fragmented investigative approach by police, which undermined the Damien Walsh murder investigation, and also potentially the investigation into Peter Gallagher’s death,” she said. 

The murder weapon

Mrs Anderson stated that police failed to pursue important evidential opportunities relating to the murder weapon.

The Browning self-loading pistol was recovered by police in east Belfast in June 1994. Ballistic tests revealed that it had been used in another UDA/UFF murder in 1991.

Despite this, the person caught with the gun was not subject to forensic tests to determine whether he could be linked to Damien’s murder. Neither was the man he said had given him the gun.

Just over a year after the gun was recovered, it was destroyed by police. Mrs Anderson was critical of the weapon’s destruction, which was undertaken in line with force policy at the time.

Although police stated that the gun had been fully forensically examined before being destroyed, “the disposal of a firearm used in an unsolved murder, in my view, ought not to have occurred.”

“The gun’s destruction removed forever the potential for any further forensic evidence to be recovered from it, which is why I am critical of the destruction of weapons used in unsolved murders.”

Mrs Anderson believes it was likely that the gun was part of a major importation of weapons by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1987.

“My predecessor Dr Michael Maguire examined this importation in his report on the 1994 murders of six men at Loughinisland. He found that there was a lack of concerted investigative effort to bring those responsible for the importation to justice.

“Detectives investigating seizures of weapons linked to the importation were not provided with relevant intelligence. I concur with Dr Maguire’s view in the Loughinisland report that the failure to do so directly impeded subsequent police investigations seeking to bring those responsible for the weapons importation to justice.

“I am of the view that the failure to share these pieces of intelligence was a deliberate decision that constituted collusive behaviour on the part of those police officers involved.”

In conclusion, Mrs Anderson said that Damien was “the innocent victim of a campaign of terror mounted by Loyalist paramilitaries against the Nationalist community.”

“The UDA/UFF alone were responsible for Damien’s murder. However, I have identified investigative failings and gaps as well as collusive behaviours by police which I believe failed both Damien and his family.”
Twitter home