The Dirty War


One interesting aspect of last week’s clash between Nuala O’Loan (Ombudsman) and Ronnie Flanagan (Old RUC Chief Constable) was the performance of various radio and television journalists. Because the two did not debate each other publicly, journalists had to play the role of devil’s advocate, dealing with two articulate and formidable professionals who were not disputing the constitutional question but the RUC’s flawed investigation into and handling of the Omagh bomb. Thus, the familiar rules for ridiculing, for example, the criticisms of your average Sinn Fein representative - with the unionist presumption that he or she is actually Sinn Fein/IRA with devalued moral rights - could not be applied to O’Loan.

I cannot be sure if my own prejudices are distorting my judgement but I got the distinct impression, certainly from the aggressive interviewing tactics of Jeremy Paxman on ‘Newsnight’ and Noel Thompson on ‘Hearts and Minds’, that O’Loan (the reformer) was treated in a more hostile fashion than Flanagan (the arch-defender of the Special Branch) who played for sympathy by reference to his potential, albeit conditional, suicide (which was actually insulting to the clinically depressed who are struggling for help and support). Similarly, most of the establishment media, politically-oriented as ever, mounted a rescue mission for the embattled chief constable, even if it meant riding roughshod over the feelings of the relatives of the Omagh victims.

It is beyond dispute that the RUC Special Branch and British Intelligence for years have infiltrated, controlled and directed the loyalist assassination campaign. Many suspect that William Stobie, who threatened to incriminate his handlers if he was imprisoned, was eliminated because he knew much more than has been revealed so far. In 1987 Stobie had been involved in the UDA murder of Adam Lambert but instead of being charged the Branch conspired to pervert the course of public justice and recruited him as an informer, as part of their dirty war against republicans and nationalists.

In February 1989 Stobie told his handlers that a ‘top republican’ was going to be shot by the UDA and he told them who was involved and gave them details of the movement of the weapons. Prior to this, Special Branch detectives during interrogations in Castlereagh kept dropping Pat Finucane’s name to loyalists as ‘a top Provo’. Around the same time that Stobie was giving his information, another British agent, UDA man Brian Nelson, was scouting Pat Finucane’s house for the assassins along with a British intelligence agent, codenamed ‘Mags’.

The simple truth is that the British government was responsible for the murder of Pat Finucane - even if a loyalist paramilitary pulled the trigger. That is why getting to the bottom of this quagmire is proving so difficult: powerful interests are involved, reputations are at stake and exposure will have massive repercussions for British rule in Ireland. That is why in the public row between O’Loan and Flanagan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and secretary of state John Reid have played down the significance of her findings and will ultimately back Flanagan over O’Loan.

In the past, state forces have never hesitated in using dirty tricks. When Dr Irwin, a police surgeon at Castlereagh Barracks, publicly stated that many detainees had been ill-treated, the RUC put out a rumour that he was bitter because he believed an SAS man had raped his wife and that it had never been properly investigated. When Detective Chief Constable John Stalker began getting close to the truth about the RUC’s shoot-to-kill policy he was suspended, taken off the inquiry and accused of being associated with a businessman with underworld connections. That finished Stalker and ruined the life of businessman Kevin Taylor, both of whom were innocent.

When former British army intelligence officer Fred Holroyd made allegations that SAS Captain Robert Nairac had been involved with loyalist assassins he was accused of being ‘a Walter Mitty’ character, the same description Ronnie Flanagan now applies to the informant ‘Kevin Fulton’ who warned of an attack three days before the bombing. (‘Fulton’s’ information, up until recently, had been described by the CID as ‘A1’.)

I have my own theory about Omagh. It is that the Special Branch and MI5 knew from their informers there was going to be a car bomb. Both they and the securocrats have never been happy with the fact that they could not defeat the IRA, nor with the peace process and the success of Sinn Fein. They are driven by their own pro-union, anti-Agreement agenda. The spate of car bombings in the wake of the 1998 referenda in support of the Belfast Agreement undermined Gerry Adams’ peace strategy, gave the impression of a deep split in the republican movement, encouraged republican dissidents by giving them an inflated view of their own numbers, strengthened the hand of anti-Agreement unionists and was persistently used to undermine nationalist demands for demilitarisation, the disbandment of the RUC and a new policing service.

I believe that they expected the bomb to go off, but that the town would be cleared. They didn’t expect that the explosion would cause the worst fatalities in any single incident of the entire Troubles. And that is why a critical internal police review of the investigation was sidelined, why the Branch had to hide their intelligence reports, why the contact sheets of Fulton’s information have gone missing, and why the Branch are now repudiating their own intelligence reports which O’Loan’s English detectives unearthed. English Detectives, some of whom have over thirty years experience, who are described now by the increasingly desperate Ronnie Flanagan as displaying ‘astounding ignorance of how terrorist organisations operate.’

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison