Dirty tricks and British intelligence

  • 21 December 2005
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Questions now arise over the Castlereagh 'break-in' in March 2002 and the IRA 'property portfolio' and links between the police and loyalist paramilitaries. By Colm Heatley

On 17 March 2002 there was a curious break-in at Castlereagh Barracks outside Belfast. Immediately after this raid the PSNI's then Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, said it looked "like an inside job", although that line was suddenly, and so far inexplicably, changed, and the IRA was blamed.

The allegation, like that of Stormont, was devastating and a serious set-back to political progress.

It appeared unlikely that the IRA would have the sophistication and resources to breach security at the heavily fortified complex which is the nerve centre of intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland.

The PSNI has always maintained that the Stormont investigation was a direct result of the Castlereagh break in. "Without Castlereagh there would have been no Stormont," the PSNI later told the media.

In what would soon become a familiar routine, the PSNI said hundreds of people's lives were in danger, in this case informers whose details had been stolen, and warned that the IRA had broken the ceasefire.

After the storm had settled, however, it transpired that the "stolen" details were useless as they were encoded and the "robbers" hadn't the information to decode the files.

No need for panic after all, but the political fall out from the PSNI Special Branch allegations was huge and inevitably set back the peace process.

The PSNI named Larry Zaitschek, an American chef in Castlereagh Barracks, as a chief suspect in the break-in. However almost four years after the raid no extradition warrant has been served on Zaitschek, who denies any involvement in the raid and who now lives in the US.

Given Denis Donaldson's relationship with Zaitschek – photographs of the pair were uncovered along with a wedding invitation from Zaitschek to Donaldson – the link needs to be explained.

Was Donaldson the informer in both cases and had he been used by Special Branch to engineer politically devastating investigations into bogus IRA intelligence-gathering operations?

Just three months ago the Assets Recovery Agency, headed by Alan McQuillan, who in his role as PSNI Assistant Chief Constable in 2002 was a key player in the decision to raid Stormont, claimed to have uncovered 250 IRA-owned properties worth £30 million in the Greater Manchester area. The raids took place in front of the media and on the same day that the Sinn Féin leadership was visiting Downing Street.

However within a few days the property portfolio had shrunk to single figures and the strongest link between the properties was that they were owned by the brother of the IRA's alleged leader in South Armagh.

Nothing has been heard since.

By next February a Police Ombudsman report into PSNI involvement in two dozen murders in Belfast will be published. The investigation into the murders, all committed by a north Belfast UVF gang between the early 1990s and 2001, is expected to be among the most damning reports of the Troubles.

It is alleged that the RUC Special Branch ran a number of key UVF members who they allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to commit murder. Furthermore it is claimed that criminal investigations into the murders were thwarted by the actions of Special Branch.

An interim file has already been sent to the DPP in which the Ombudsman has recommended prosecutions against six senior RUC members.

The exemption clause in the now hotly debated OTR ("On-the-Runs") legislation will not apply because some of the murders occurred after the Good Friday Agreement.

That report will mark the next series of damaging allegations against Special Branch, "a force within a force" which has always resisted outside investigation.

Special Branch and MI5 wielded massive power throughout the Troubles. British government policy in Northern Ireland has always been largely dictated by a security agenda and these two groups were the key strategists. Even today the Northern Ireland Office shares its London offices with MI5. There is irrefutable evidence that during the Troubles the intelligence services colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in sectarian murders.

The most efficient loyalist gang to emerge during the 1990s was the UFF's C Company based in Belfast's Shankill Road. The four most senior members of that gang, Billy Stobie, Ken Barrett, Tommy Lyttle and Brian Nelson are self-confessed Special Branch and MI5 informers.

Between them they killed dozens of Catholics, and any Protestants who stood in their way. Now that the most violent days of the Troubles are over the key question is whether, like the mutineers at the Curragh 90 years ago, the intelligence services are attempting to subvert the political agenda through undemocratic means.