Ombudsman report into paramilitary murders avoided term ‘collusion’

North’s police watchdog noted ‘collusive behaviour’ between RUC and loyalist terrorists

The North’s police ombudsman Marie Anderson repeatedly used a curious phrase in her damning report this week into police links to loyalist paramilitary murders during the 1990s.

The long-running inquiry detailed the handing of weapons to terrorists by police officers, the destruction of records relating to loyalist informants involved in shooting Catholics and a failure to make targets aware their life was under threat.

This was, in Ms Anderson's findings, "collusive behaviour" between the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), its Special Branch and terrorists waging a bloody campaign of blatantly sectarian killings.

The term, used nine times in her 344-page report, and repeatedly by Ms Anderson in her public statement on the publication of the report, would have been a new one to many, who may have asked themselves: "Why not just say 'collusion'?"

"I'm not as uptight about it as maybe some others are," said Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre human rights organisation, based in Derry.

“I regard collusive behaviour as collusion. I regard giving guns back to loyalists that were then used to murder people as collusion. I regard not doing proper investigations deliberately, destroying documents, running agents that you cannot run to stop people dying, but merely to inform yourself what is happening, I regard all of that as collusion.

“That is what the ombudsman outlined in her report.”

Legal challenge

The unfamiliar phraseology has its roots in a legal challenge brought by retired police officers in the North against a former police ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, for a finding of state collusion in the Loughinisland atrocity.

Five people were murdered and five others injured when Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen opened fire in the Heights Bar in the Co Down village as they watched a World Cup football match in June 1994.

In June 2020, Belfast’s court of appeal ruled that Dr Maguire had “overstepped the mark” with a report that amounted to “findings of criminal offences by members of the police force”.

The police watchdog was forced to amend his report but attempts by retired police officers to have it quashed altogether failed.

“I think if Ms Anderson said collusion in her report this week she would be open to legal challenge,” said Mr O’Connor.

“So if that means she uses the phrase ‘collusive behaviours’, I’d prefer to see that and families getting the report, than her using the word ‘collusion’ and the report getting tied up in legal challenges.

“It is deeply frustrating for families who are waiting.”

But the human rights campaigner has no doubts in his mind about what “collusive behaviour” actually means.

“It is a very strange term, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it is a duck,” he says.

Pat Finucane

It is a view shared by Kevin Winters, who heads human rights law firm KRW and who was an apprentice to Pat Finucane when he was murdered in 1989, in a case of alleged state collusion.

“Collusive behaviour is collusion,” he said.

“We don’t draw any legal or other distinction between the two.

“We appreciate the ombudsman’s approach to use of such terminology is cautious but that is understandable given wider sensitivities to statutory obligations.’’

Andrée Murphy is deputy director of Relatives for Justice, which has been supporting the families of 11 murder victims and 27 people who survived murder attempts by loyalist informants, detailed in Ms Anderson’s report.

As well as guns used in the killings being given to the murderers by police, a “blind eye” was turned to their activities and there were”significant” investigative and intelligence failures, it found.

"I don't think there is any difference between the two phrases – collusive behaviour and collusion. It is a legal euphemism," says Ms Murphy.

“It is legal semantics that the Police Ombudsman is having to use. We commonly understand it as collusion.”

The Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association was contacted for response but did not immediately respond.