Stakeknife is in the Police Ombudsman’s frame, but has he the tools to do the job?

One of the casualties of the failure to implement the Stormont House Agreement is I presume, the extra £150 million due to have been allocated over five years for dealing with the past. Although I know of no details of how the funding was to be shared out, some of it would have been apportioned to the Police Ombudsman, an office whose reputation has been revived by the redoubtable Dr Michael Maguire.  He issued a warning last year of the consequences of budget cuts  at a time when his  case load was dramatically increasing.

Plans to begin work on some high-profile cases within six to 12 months have had to be postponed. Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire was to have examined claims of criminal misconduct by Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, including collusion and conspiracy to murder and perverting the course of justice. They include the IRA killing of ten Protestant workers near the County Armagh village of Kingsmills in 1976, the murders of 12 people at La Mon Hotel, outside Belfast and what has become known as the Glennane series – more than 70 murders in counties Armagh and Tyrone in the 1970s.

Dr Maguire said: “The reduction in budget has undermined our ability to deal with the past.

“The number of complaints we have received about historical matters has doubled since 2012 – we now have almost 300 cases. I had hoped that the additional funding we had requested could have allowed us to complete these cases within six years, but suspect they may now take 12 years or more.”

Even so, he forges ahead.  In April the Guardian exclusively reported on investigations  reaching into the heart of collusion investigation.

“One of those who has instructed KRW Law is Frank Mulhern, the father of Joe Mulhern, who was killed in 1993. Frank Mulhern believes his son was killed by the IRA in west Belfast because he was suspected as being an informer giving information about the IRA to the RUC, and that one of the suspects in his murder was Fred Scappaticci, known as Stakeknife, a high ranking officer in the IRA, now considered to have been a British agent.

In a follow-up today, Owen Boycott gives other examples of such cases:

The revelation in April that Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman is conducting an investigation into whether the murders could have been prevented has triggered legal claims against the Ministry of Defence and the man identified as the army’s highest ranking agent in the IRA…

The key issue is whether double agents within the IRA were permitted to commit crimes – even murder – in order to gain the trust of paramilitary organisations or sacrifice IRA members to protect their own position.

Will they trigger similar cries of international outrage to those which accompany the investigations into the disappeared?  They will also provide stern tests of the willingness of the police past and present, to cooperate. And not only the police,  but wherever the investigations lead.  From La Mon House to the activities of the nutting squad, all sides the community are affected.  If it takes twelve years to produce results, the families may come to believe that they’ve got the worst of all worlds, the chance of truth, but strung out on the rack for years.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Mercurius Politicus

    Worth referring to paragraph 30 of the Stormont House Agreement. The Historical Investigations Unit will be taking forward outstanding cases from the HET (and I’d assume the Legacy Investigations Branch) and the legacy work from the Ombudsman.

    So it is very unlikely that funding would be granted to Michael Maguire to support a function they will not be undertaking.

    What isn’t clear is the outworkings of paragraph 36 in which the HIU will have full policing powers in criminal investigations, but where cases are transferred from PONI, the HIU will have equivalent powers to that body. Appears that therefore HIU would also have the power to investigate cases where an RUC officer is alleged to have been involved in some sort of misconduct or even criminal activity.

    The HIU will also be expected to complete its work in five years which seems ambitious. So if it takes another 18 months to come into existence then you could be talking nearly seven years rather than 12 to complete. Though the Queens Speech indicated that Westminster wild legislate for the legacy institutions, how will the potential collapse of Stormont and the SHA affect this and moreover, how will it affect the victims some parties claim to represent?

  • Nevin

    “they’ve got the worst of all worlds, the chance of truth, but strung out on the rack for years.”

    I would have thought there was little chance of truth so that’s an even worse scenario.

  • chrisjones2

    If Steaknife worked for the Army or MI5what role does the police Ombudsman have?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Big budgets needed for all this, but in the context of the overall spending on NI in the Troubles, it’s a drop in the ocean. I wish the money were made available, it could be transformative, genuinely.

    Unfortunately, the inability of the NI parties to form – or stick to – any consensus over historical enquiries means those holding the purse strings are unlikely to commit. It will take a big, headline-grabbing leap forward by the politicians a la Good Friday before, I suspect, the Treasury will consider this is a must-do.

    Owen Boycott’s phraseology though is revealing when we says:
    “The key issue is whether double agents within the IRA were permitted to commit crimes – even murder – in order to gain the trust of paramilitary organisations or sacrifice IRA members to protect their own position.”

    What’s interesting to me here is “to protect their own position.” It’s this kind of framing of the moral question around running informers that hampers the debate. Yes, he’ll have been protecting his position – but if running an informer is described purely in terms of the informer’s self-preservation, the whole enterprise looks pointless. Perhaps that is the intention of the writer. But if he has said instead the following, it might be more enlightening for the reader and a better reflection of the true dilemma:
    “The key issue is whether double agents within the IRA were permitted to commit crimes – even murder – in order to gain the trust of paramilitary organisations or sacrifice IRA members, as a way of reducing the overall toll of IRA crimes and murders.”

    That’s what it was all about, surely.

  • chrisjones2

    So who will the Ombudsman be accountable to for misconduct by his staff? Who will investigate the Ombudsman’s staff? If I am not satisfied at the Ombudsman’s work, who can I complain to and who is responsible for fixing it?

  • aquifer

    How to investigate the murderous acts of a secretive armed sectarian conspiracy of political blackmail, whose induction training consisted of techniques to defeat prosecution?

    Much easier to follow trails where there is paper, places like police stations.

  • Leo Powers

    Replace “Ombudsman” with “State” then reverse

  • chrisjones2

    ..a fair point ….but the police do at times investigate State actors

  • Carl Mark

    So murder is only a crime when the IRA. Did it, innocent people killed by those in the employ of the state with the knowledge of the state are acceptable. Loss,s.
    That is a pretty immoral viewpoint, so a hierarchy of victims, starting at the top, those murdered by members of the IRA. who were not British agents, then I suppose you would have to include the loyalists (but they mostly were state agents, so do we count them)
    Then that would be it.
    Maybe we could have some sort of memorial for those killed by the state, maybe something along the lines of , a wall with the inscription,
    And no doubt you will tell the loved ones of those murdered that it was a good thing that happened because it protected terrorists.
    It is a thing of wonder how your moral compass can change according to who was doing the killing.

  • chrisjones2

    ” some sort of memorial ”

    Drive around West Belfast – there are dozens of them. All you need is a cause, a wall and £50 worth of paint

  • Carl Mark

    That was a cheap shot, but I suppose if its in ye it will come out of ye!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That would make sense if you were replying to someone else, CM, but it seems like you may not have read what I wrote on this topic? I called for criminal prosecutions and jail for deliberate wrong-doing by security operatives. How is that an immoral viewpoint?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You fall into the same trap as Owen Boycott though, when you say “murdered to protect British agents”. You make it sound like the security services were infiltrating the paramilitaries for no reason at all, that the running of agents saved no lives. The reality is there are many, many people walking around today who are only here because the security services penetrated and frustrated paramilitary attempts to kill them. As many of those people are Catholic as Protestant, as the biggest results in terms of reducing murder rates were achieved against Loyalist terror groups. As Da Silva found, the net effect of running agents overall was that many lives were saved from the terrorists.

    That’s little consolation if you were one of the people who was murdered when action could have been taken. And there were clearly some cases where there was actual wrongdoing by agent-handlers who indulged in serious criminal behaviour. Those who did should face the full force of the law.

    But to heap blame onto the security forces generally, as some seem to be seeking to do, for terrorist murders carried out by cells in which they had informers, rather than blaming the actual terrorists, seems perverse. I’m not sure how people square that.

  • Carl Mark

    Well the security service’s certainly let their agents away with murder (I do admire how you manage to have acceptable murders and unacceptable murders) of course you easily duck that old canard, what effect did these murders have on those around them!
    How many young people from both sides joined a paramilitary and became active terrorists because of the murders committed by state agents.
    Your last paragraph seems to imply that it was a case that some terrorist cell,s had informers in them, whereas it was whole terror groups that were controlled by state agents, armed by state agents and protected by state agents.
    Of course this does affect your infamous mathematic equation with which you often regal us, until we find out how many people were killed under orders of state agents or directly by them ( you can share them on a 50/50 basis with the terror group they operated in) .
    Safe to say we can chalk up most loyalist killings to the state, and how many of those killed by Provo’s were ordered or carried out by state agents so the numbers change !
    this could well put the state at the top of the league table of evil you keep (at the very least it will be close) and if you really believe the principal behind that league table (you know “the real bad guys are those who killed the most), well you are going to have to change your opinion on who was the bad guys.

  • Carl Mark

    I have read several things from yourself,
    On the random killings of the MRF, you quoted articles of war to excuse them.
    you often quote a philosophical conundrum to justify state murder.
    Strangely you call for lawbreakers to face the courts and at the same time justify those lawbreakers with the (completely unproved) argument that they saved more lives than they took.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to on the MRF, but I think I’ve been pretty consistent. I follow the criminal law on this.

    I’m not sure why you’re confused, it’s not that complicated really: (1) the overall process of infiltration of the paramilitaries saved lives; and (2) notwithstanding that, state forces acted ultra vires in some cases and are criminally responsible for those actions. That’s what Da Silva found. The two are not contradictory at all. Your approach seems to be to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You’re at odds with the Da Silva Report on that. He takes apart statements like “safe to say we can chalk up most loyalist killings to the state”. Here’s what he found:
    “5.9 … I can certainly infer from the available material that there is no evidence to suggest that, in the late 1980s, the security forces were institutionally biased in seeking to bring charges against republican paramilitaries as opposed to loyalists. On the contrary, the actions of the authorities in charging, prosecuting and imprisoning loyalist terrorists during the late 1980s in my view seriously undermines any simplistic notion that loyalist terrorists should be regarded as an extension of the State.”
    “5.17 It is important that I acknowledge the role played by such intelligence activity in preventing loss of life as a result of loyalist attacks. In particular, I am satisfied
    that intelligence operations led by the Security Service and the RUC SB played a
    significant part in effectively nullifying the terrorist threat from the UDA in certain
    geographical areas of Northern Ireland in the late 1980s. Intelligence was also
    critical to the successes achieved by the security forces in seizing arms during
    this period.”
    “5.18 The pattern of loyalist terrorist activity, both over time and in different regions,
    did correlate to an extent with the level of agent penetration or other disruptive
    activity achieved by the intelligence agencies.”
    (He goes on to say the West Belfast UDA was an exception to the rule.)
    “5.19 In view of the criticisms later in this Report, it is important to note that the
    authorities were taking significant action against loyalist terrorists during the late
    1980s. I have no doubt that the action taken by the security forces did frustrate
    loyalist terrorists and significantly reduce their operational capacity in Northern
    Ireland as a whole.
    “5.20 Any attempt to crudely describe loyalist terrorists as simply ‘State-sponsored
    forces’ is, in my view, untenable and fundamentally at odds with a substantial
    body of contemporary evidence and the historical context of the relationship
    between loyalists and the security forces during this period (see Chapter 2). The
    evidence of collusion between elements of the State and loyalist terrorists that
    I have uncovered during the course of this Review does, therefore, need to be
    positioned in the context of this chapter and the action that was being taken by
    the State to thwart loyalist paramilitaries.”

    You were saying?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I should add – I have not and would not justify state murder. At no point have I done so. What I have sought to do is reintroduce reality and empathy to the debate over what the security services should and shouldn’t have done. This is not as straightforward as some of the most virulent critics of the security forces make out.

    I think those critics also need to be honest with themselves about what they are really asking that the security forces – and the UK state overall – should have done to tackle the terror gangs. It is interesting that many of the most unforgiving critics are often also critics of the British presence in Ireland in principle. The question has to be asked how rigorous they have been in honestly putting themselves in the shoes of decision-makers and operatives at the time, given their antipathy to the very existence of British state apparatus in Northern Ireland.

    Some of these critics are even Irish Republicans. The unintended comedy of IRA apologists trying to lecture civil society on how the security services are allowed to police terrorism is not lost on most of us.

    That doesn’t mean all the criticisms are wrong, just that the people making them don’t always draw the most logical or fair conclusions. Stevens and Da Silva should both be listened to and taken seriously. Much clearer rules are now in place for running agents. But there is a need for a wider public debate, like the one we’re having, over what we expect of our security services and how they should be treated when they err. When they engage in outright criminality, it’s clear, they need the full force of the law. If we are pushing ahead with prosecutions though, we need them against the terrorists too. They can’t stand back and watch, in all conscience.

  • Carl Mark

    On a debate on the murders carried out by the MRF, you tried to use the Hague and Geneva conventions sections dealing with accidental civilian casualty’s to imply legality, as you now try to justify state murder with a twisted logic
    Perhaps you could point me in the direction of state agents and handlers have been held as criminally responsible for their actions, how many MI agents or special branch have appeared in court.
    when will the records be opened till we see how many deaths they were responsible for.
    No MU you very much apply double standards when it come to violence, we do get the occasional mealy mouthed demand for justice for all, but always accompanied by a larger amount of “themuns made us do it anyway”

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You may have to show me the passage you mean as it doesn’t sound quite right.

    You haven’t actually put forward an argument as to why we shouldn’t look at the wider circumstances of agents being run, as Da Silva did. Without it, it’s going to be pretty hard to work out what was reasonable versus what was unreasonable for those running the agents to do.

    What’s mealy-mouthed about calling for prosecutions for all criminal wrongdoing? Don’t you also support that?

    I can see you want to get the security force wrong-doers, great, but what about the rest? If you’re leaving them be, can you talk me through why – and how you’re going to explain to the public why we’re going back to prosecute state agents but not terrorists. I don’t think that would go down too well.

  • Carl Mark

    since I couldn’t be bothered to trawl through history to pull the quote (it was around the time you where claiming that the DUP/UUP routinely condemned loyalist murders) now you make a lot of the Da Silva report despite the fact that it was a report set up by the British government to investigate thee British government and lets be honest it wasn’t highly regarded by the victims of state violence .
    Now I want to see all the killers in the dock, as to why we should prosecute state forces before terrorists, where did I say that (please don’t put words in my mouth) but think upon this, there are people running around with medals and state pensions (maybe the odd OBE,MBE or Knighthood) for organising and abetting the murder of innocent people.
    and as for prosecuting state agents and not terrorists and people might object, well we wont know how that will go down till we prosecute a few state agents but no sign of that happening any time soon.
    even those who gunned down marchers on Television for the whole world to see never done a day in prison (or perhaps you think that served the greater good as well) so I wont hold my breath waiting for any state sanctioned murderers going in front of court.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree, we have every right to be skeptical. I’d have liked to have seen more prosecutions by this stage, as well as more terrorist crimes solved and prosecuted also.

  • DisparityNI

    I don’t think you quite fathom just how many people died as a result of using these tactics…. …. and this is just one guy.