‘Significant concerns’ over RUC handling of loyalist activity, finds ombudsman

An official investigation into police handling of loyalist paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland that resulted in 19 murders has identified “collusive behaviours” and “significant concerns” about officers’ conduct.

The long-delayed report by the Northern Ireland police ombudsman into the killings included an investigation into the circumstances around the 1993 Greysteel pub massacre, which left eight people dead and 19 injured.

All the attacks were carried out by the Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters in the north-west of the island of Ireland between 1989 and 1993.

In her damning report, ombudsman Marie Anderson found some of these lives could have been saved were it not for shortcomings within Northern Ireland’s police force at the time, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), in relation to use of intelligence and use of informants.

While she said that there was no evidence that the RUC had prior knowledge of the attacks, the names of a number of people targeted in the attacks were discovered in loyalist “intelligence caches” between November 1989 and February 1992.

The police failed to warn a number of people their lives were at risk and in some cases did no assessment of the risk. That, she said, was a “contravention of RUC Force Orders”.

Of the 11 attacks investigated, seven involved the targeting of individuals whose names had appeared in the caches.

“The lists included the names of six of the 19 people murdered by the UDA/UFF during this period and that of Patrick McErlain, who survived an attack in August 1992,” said a statement accompanying the report, published on Friday.

Anderson found that while there was no evidence that the RUC had prior knowledge of the attacks, families’ concerns about “collusive behaviours” were “legitimate”.

Eight people died as a result of the UDA in Greysteel on the eve of Halloween and 19 were injured. Four loyalists were later convicted of the murders, which had been carried out in revenge for the nine Protestants killed in the Shankill bombing the week before.

The Greysteel victims were both Catholic and Protestant. The youngest was 19-year-old Karen Thompson, who died along with her boyfriend, Steven Mullan, while the oldest was 81-year-old James Moore.

Anderson stated that the investigations following the attacks she investigated had been “prompt and thorough” and the majority of intelligence gathered by the RUC special branch was shared with murder investigation teams in a timely manner.

However, she criticised “intelligence and surveillance failings” at the RUC which allowed for the arming of the north-west UDA/UFF with military assault rifles.

“I am of the view that police were aware of the growing threat posed by the North West UDA/UFF from 1989 onwards. This increased threat, however, was not initially accompanied by a policing response proportionate to the increased risk to members of the republican and nationalist communities,” she said.

She also criticised the RUC’s continued use of informants despite possessing intelligence that they were involved in serious criminality including murder.

“I am of the view that this illustrated a practice on the part of some RUC special branch officers to recruit, and continue to use, informants suspected of involvement in serious criminality, including murder, contrary to applicable RUC policy at the time.”

Her report comes as the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, edges closer to publishing a bill designed to give amnesty to police, army members and others involved in killings in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

The ombudsman’s investigation found that a number of lives could have been saved were it not for the RUC’s failure to act on intelligence.

She also said police had failed to deal appropriately with members of the security forces suspected of having passed sensitive information to loyalist paramilitaries.

Some were investigated properly but instead of facing criminal investigations “they were dismissed or repositioned”. “I am of the view that allegations of RUC officers passing information of use to terrorists was a serious matter that should have been investigated robustly and consistently,” she said.