Police chiefs in North said there was no law ‘against telling lies’
John Stalker affair and shoot-to-kill policy cover-up were major topics of conversation
An RUC police officer in riot gear during rioting by loyalists in Belfast. The Irish government said the RUC must not be allowed to “descend to the level and methods of the terrorists”. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Reuters
Senior police chiefs in Northern Ireland during the 1980s said there was no law “against telling lies” when pressed about the suspected cover-up of an alleged shoot-to-kill policy, according to newly-released State files.
In documents marked “Secret”, an Irish diplomat reported back to Dublin about a meeting with his “usual contact” in Belfast, who had sources among paramilitaries, politicians and police.
During the meeting on April 7th, 1987, the Irish government’s secret contact said he had attended a dinner hosted by the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) chief constable, John Hermon, which was attended by a number of senior officers.
The “Stalker affair was a major topic of conversation”.
The contact said when asked “whether the RUC’s actions amounted to a conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice” that one of the senior officers replied: “There’s no law in the land against telling lies.”
According to the document, Hermon “explicitly supported him on this”.
During the dinner, the RUC officers engaged in “a sustained character assassination of John Stalker, saying he had not done detective work since the Moors killing 20 years ago and that he was a shameless publicity seeker who had left all the hard work to his deputy, Thorburn”, the contact said.
In what was one of the most controversial episodes of the Troubles, Stalker was asked to investigate a suspected cover-up over the RUC killings of six unarmed men in 1982.
The then deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police was taken off the case at the moment he believed he was about to obtain an MI5 tape of one of the shootings.
Suspended over allegations of associating with criminals, he was later cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated in his job in Manchester but his report was never published.
The Irish government contact said a “particular criticism” of Stalker by the RUC chiefs during the dinner was that he “had revealed to the media the existence of MI5 bugging devices”.
That allegation was rejected by journalist Peter Taylor, the diplomat notes, who “told my contact that it was [former Northern Ireland secretary of state] Jim Prior who had accidentally revealed their existence”.
During a meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in February 1988, then minister for justice Gerry Collins told secretary of state Tom King that “it is impossible to exaggerate the seriousness of the shoot-to-kill policy”.
“It casts a dark shadow over the RUC and has the gravest implications for cross-Border co-operation with the gardaí, apart altogether from its impact on relations between the RUC and nationalists in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Collins warned King that the RUC must not be allowed to “descend to the level and methods of the terrorists”.
The decision not to prosecute officers was tantamount to the rule of law being “second or possibly third place” to “non-defined matters of public interest and national security”, he said.
Confidence between the RUC and the Garda had been dealt a “devastating setback” because the RUC “is known to have within it, and to be shielding, officers who, at the very least, are strongly suspected of serious crime”.
“We want to co-operate with this force but every obstacle is being placed in our way.”
The Minister said he was “facing a public stampede” amid “widespread unease and disquiet”.
Stressing the “exceptionally serious problem for us”, Collins repeatedly dismissed King’s insistence that the Cabinet in London had no say over the attorney general’s decision not to prosecute.
He suggested the British take “a breather for a day or two to give you room for manoeuvre”.
“We are in a very troubled situation. If we cannot resolve it, it could have serious consequences,” he said.
King said the killings had “cast a cloud over the modern RUC” and that he “most bitterly regret the events of 1982 and their subsequent treatment”.
“Having worked to build up confidence in the RUC, to have this awful old business now before us is something that I have thoughts about too deep for tears,” he told Collins.
“We need this like we need a hole in the head... things were done which shouldn’t have been done.”