A gun used in a 1992 massacre at a Belfast bookmakers, in which five people were murdered, was handed to a known loyalist terrorist by police, a report by Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman has found.
Marie Anderson’s investigation lays bare a litany of “collusive behaviours” between police and the loyalist paramilitaries as they escalated their murderous campaign against Catholics during the 1990s.
She said police were guilty of “significant” investigative and intelligence failures in relation to 11 loyalist murders and several attempted murders by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), the report states. These included the attack on Sean Graham Bookmakers on the Ormeau Road on February 5th, 1992.
Ms Anderson’s inquiry reveals that “deactivated” and “live” weapons were handed over to loyalist paramilitaries by police at the time, despite officers knowing that the terrorists had the ability to reactivate them.
A Browning pistol, used in the Sean Graham killings, was originally stolen from the Ulster Defence Regiment — an infantry of the British army — along with other weapons and “made available” to police by an informant, who was a “quartermaster” in the UDA/UFF.
The gun was deactivated but returned to the quartermaster along with other weapons, which were not deactivated, the report says.
The Browning was then reactivated by the loyalist paramilitaries and later used in the attack on the bookmakers. It was also used to murder Aidan Wallace in the Devenish Arms Inn in north Belfast in December 1991.
In that attack, claimed by the UFF, two masked gunmen entered the pub’s snooker hall and fired two shots into the back of Mr Wallace’s head as he was leaning over a snooker table. They then fired indiscriminately at others, including an eight-year-old boy, who lost his eye as a result.
While other firearms were subsequently recovered before being used again, the Browning was never retrieved by police.
Ms Anderson said failure to recover the weapon was largely down to the unreliability of the loyalist informant who was handed the pistol by police, and attempts by the then Royal Ulster Constabulary’s special branch to hide his involvement.
Police were aware of suspicions that the informant had previously been involved in murder, she said, and the special branch had failed to “exercise effective oversight of his ongoing use”.
“Considered objectively, the release of weapons to this individual, given his history of unreliability and the potential for those weapons to be reactivated, demonstrated a disregard for the safety of members of the public by police,” she said. “As an objective, independent observer, I find it inherently reckless that live weapons were provided to a terrorist in any circumstance.”
Ms Anderson said the use by special branch of informants involved in serious criminality, including murder was “unjustifiable” and tantamount to “turning a blind eye”. The special branch recruited loyalist informants “who posed especially high risks due to their likely involvement in previous murders”, she said.
“This was totally unacceptable, and an illustration of how on occasion, the interests of obtaining information from informants was given precedence over the protection of the public from paramilitary crime and murder,” the report states. “I am of the view that the absence of controls, combined with the absence of records relating to these informants, constitutes collusive behaviour.”
Furthermore, there was a “deliberate failure to retain records relating to this sensitive and controversial activity” which was “indicative of a desire to avoid accountability.”
In her 344-page report, she said she was “deeply concerned” by the scale and scope of police failings related to a series of murders, attempted murders and injuries from loyalist paramilitaries during the period under investigation.
While she found no evidence that police had information which could have prevented the attacks, she said intelligence possessed by the special branch — which had a network of UDA/UFF informants — was not passed to detectives.
Special branch also failed to hand over intelligence to murder investigation teams, which “significantly impeded” their ability charge the gunmen.
There was no evidence that intelligence linking a number of people to the murder of Mr Wallace, as well as that of taxi driver Harry Conlon in October 1991, was handed over to investigators.
Nor were there any records that intelligence on a suspect for the murder of Michael Gilbride in the Ormeau Road area of Belfast in November 1992 was passed to investigating detectives.
Police investigating the Sean Graham massacre were also deprived of valuable intelligence, which could have led to the recovery of firearms and clothing involved in the attack, the report states.
The Police Ombudsman said intelligence and surveillance “failings” also allowed loyalist paramilitaries to obtain military grade weaponry in a 1987 arms importation and that police failed to warn two men of known threats to their lives.
Samuel Caskey received no warning before loyalists attempted to murder him in October 1990. James (Jim) Clinton also received no warning of a known threat to his life before an attack on his home in April 1994, in which his wife Theresa was murdered.
“I am of the view that this serious omission constitutes collusive behaviour ,” said Mrs Anderson.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s temporary assistant chief constable Jonathan Roberts admitted “areas of the report make uncomfortable reading”.
“There is a willingness to consider and examine police actions openly, professionally and proportionately; where there has been wrongdoing, those responsible should be held to account for their actions,” he said, adding that intelligence handling and investigative standards now are “unrecognisable from what was in place at the time of these attacks.
He offered “sincere apologies” to the families of those killed and injured “for the failings identified in this report”.
In a statement issued by Relatives for Justice and KRW Law members of some of the victims’ families said they had been vindicated by the report’s finidings.
“The report finds that 11 murdered citizens and their families were systemically failed by the British state in life and in death. It is a damning report that is undiluted evidence of the policy of collusion as it was practiced in South Belfast, and across the North,” it said.
Speaking on Monday evening Sean Grahams’ Bookmakers survivor Mark Sykes said: “This is a long report, which will take families days to process and come to terms with.