By David Young, PA
Families of loyalist murder victims have vowed to fight for justice after a damning police watchdog report found officers had engaged in “collusive behaviours” with paramilitary killers.
Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Marie Anderson said she was “deeply concerned” by the scale and scope of the failings she had uncovered in her probe into murders and attempted murders carried out by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in south Belfast in the 1990s.
Eleven people were murdered in the eight loyalist attacks attributed to the UDA, or its Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) cover name, that were examined in the ombudsman’s 344-page report published on Tuesday.
The dead included the five who lost their lives in the notorious Sean Graham bookmakers atrocity on the Ormeau Road in February 1992.
Among her highly critical findings, Ms Anderson branded as “totally unacceptable” the use by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch of informants who had themselves been involved in murders.
She also found that a gun used in the Sean Graham betting shop killings had been handed back to an informant by police in a bid to protect his cover.
The ombudsman said files relating to the massacre had also been deliberately destroyed.
Relatives of those killed in the bookmakers and in the other UDA murders in the area called for justice as they reacted to the report on Tuesday.
Tommy Duffin, whose father Jack was killed in the Sean Graham shootings, said the probe was damning of the RUC.
“It should have been more damning in my personal opinion,” he said.
“This is only a chapter for us. I think the new chapter begins when we start hunting down the perpetrators and also their handlers. This has to happen. We have to get a mechanism to bring these people to justice so our loved ones can rest in peace.”
Bosco Kennedy’s 15-year-old brother James was the youngest victim of the bookmakers atrocity.
“Today is all about the families and the victims, we’ve been waiting over 30 years for this report,” he said.
“From a personal point of view the simple facts that I take from this report is the loyalist murderers who carried out the Sean Graham bookmakers atrocity were police informants and one of the guns used to murder my 15-year-old brother was given to the UDA by the RUC police handlers.
“Today we get the truth but we still want justice.”
Mr Kennedy said those who handled the informants within the RUC needed to face justice.
“We want to know who put the guns in those loyalist murderers’ hands,” he said.
As well as raising concerns about the use of informants in relation to the cases in her report, the ombudsman commented on the wider Special Branch policy of employing informers that had been involved in murder.
She said the findings of the new probe, when combined with the conclusions of other reports published by her office in the past, had identified a total of eight UDA/UFF informants who were linked, through intelligence, to the murders and attempted murders of 27 people.
While she found no evidence that police had received information that would have allowed them to prevent any of the attacks examined in the latest report, the ombudsman questioned why no such intelligence was received, given that Special Branch had such a network of informants within the UDA/UFF.
A senior PSNI officer said that areas of the report made “uncomfortable reading” and apologised to the families of those killed and injured for the failings identified.
A Court of Appeal judgment in 2020 has limited the scope of the ombudsman to accuse former officers of the criminal offence of collusion with paramilitaries.
Acknowledging this limitation, Mrs Anderson said she had identified conduct within the RUC that amounted to “collusive behaviours”.
She said the long-held concerns of bereaved families and survivors about RUC conduct, including complaints of collusion with paramilitaries, were “legitimate and justified”.
Ms Anderson said “collusive behaviours” identified in her report included:
- Intelligence and surveillance failings which led to loyalist paramilitaries obtaining military grade weaponry in a 1987 arms importation.
- A failure to warn two men of threats to their lives.
- A failure to retain records and the deliberate destruction of files relating to the attack at Sean Graham bookmakers.
- The failure to maintain records about the deactivation of weapons, “indicating a desire to avoid accountability for these sensitive and contentious activities”.
- The failure of police to exploit all evidential opportunities.
- Failures by Special Branch to disseminate intelligence to murder investigation teams.
- An absence of control and oversight in the recruitment and management of informants.
- Unjustifiable and continued use by RUC Special Branch of informants involved in serious criminality, including murder, and the passive “turning a blind eye” to such activities.
The murders and attempted murders were carried out between 1990 and 1998. All the victims were Catholic.
James Kennedy, Mr Duffin, Christy Doherty, Peter Magee and Willie McManus all died in the betting shop attack. Several others were badly injured.
The report also covered the murders of Harry Conlon and Aidan Wallace in 1991, Michael Gilbride in 1992, Martin Moran in 1993, Theresa Clinton in 1994 and Larry Brennan in 1998.
It also examined the attempted murder of Samuel Caskey in 1990.
The report identified concerns about police returning both “deactivated” and live weapons to a loyalist informant.
This was despite police being aware of intelligence that loyalists had the ability to make deactivated weapons operational again.
One weapon – a deactivated Browning pistol – was subsequently reactivated and used in the murder of Mr Wallace and in the Sean Graham bookmakers shooting.
The ombudsman also criticised a failure by Special Branch to issue threat warnings to two men after intelligence indicated their lives were in danger.
The threats related to Mr Caskey prior to the murder attempt on him in 1990 and to Jim Clinton, whose wife Theresa was killed in the attack on their home in 1994.
Mrs Anderson said the failure to warn both men contravened police guidance for the issuing of threat warnings.
Theresa Clinton’s daughter Siobhan told a news conference in south Belfast that the report was “shocking from start to finish”.
She said the RUC had multiple opportunities to warn her family that they were under threat.
“The ombudsman stated that if our family had been informed of the imminent threat that this could have prevented my mummy’s murder,” she said.
Responding to the report, PSNI temporary assistant chief constable Jonathan Roberts said: “Areas of the report make uncomfortable reading and I want to offer my sincere apologies to the families of those killed and injured for the failings identified in this report.
“We will never seek to excuse bad policing and where criticism is reasonably made the police service will acknowledge and address that.”