The arrest of 28 Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) members on the instructions of the Stevens Inquiry provoked a furious protest by one of the force's most senior officers, according to previously confidential files released in Belfast.
The inquiry had been instigated by then RUC chief constable Hugh Annesley under detective chief constable John Stevens of the Cambridgeshire constabulary to investigate the leaking of intelligence documents and collusion between elements of the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.
The arrests, carried out on a Sunday in October 1989, angered the colonel commander of the controversial regiment, Dennis Faulkner, a leading businessman and a brother of former prime minister of Northern Ireland Brian Faulkner.
In a "note for the record", dated October 10th, 1989, Stephen Leitch, private secretary to secretary of state Peter Brooke, reported an impromptu meeting between Col Faulkner and Brooke following the arrests.
The colonel began by expressing his anger at the way the arrest of the 28 soldiers had been handled. It was his view that “if there were malefactors in the regiment, they should be vigorously weeded out”. However, he felt that the handling of the arrests had been “little short of disgraceful”.
It was unprecedented in the North for a major arrest operation to be carried out on a Sunday and the RUC news release that 300 policemen had been deployed in the operation was “highly provocative”.
Not only was such a force unnecessary but it “carried the implication that UDR soldiers were on a par with terrorists”.
This, Faulkner said, was scarcely borne out by the fact that most of those arrested had now been released while only four had been charged and with minor offences. “People were drawing the conclusion that the operation had been mounted for political reasons to impress Dublin,” he said, adding he feared that many would leave the UDR as a result.
The secretary of state, who was scarcely two months in post, replied that the chief constable [Hugh Annesley] and the Stevens Inquiry were responsible to the law, not to him and it was for them to act as they saw fit “without political input or direction”.
He said it “was certainly not the case that the arrests were designed to have an effect on Anglo-Irish relations”, but where UDR soldiers committed crimes, they would be rigorously pursued.
The file revealed that at a subsequent meeting, Stevens indicated that more serious charges might follow. It was also revealed that a special vetting unit had been established by British military headquarters for potential UDR recruits.
In a further note on the file for Brooke, dated October 10th, 1989, AP Wilson, a Northern Ireland Office official, reported a conversation with the commander of land forces [Major-General Tony Jeapes] who assured him that “HQNI” fully accepted the need for a “vigorous, impartial inquiry into allegations of misbehaviour or worse by any member of the security forces. They wanted Mr Stevens’s team to get to the bottom of the problem and expose it for what it was . . . ”
Stevens, he reported, had told Jeapes that his inquiries so far suggested that only a comparatively small number of UDR members in a particular brigade had been guilty of a range of offences “but there was no evidence of any central coordination of their activities”.
The general said he had gone to Stevens to voice his concern about reports of damage to property during the raids and of ill-treatment and abuse of some of those arrested, but he admitted there was no hard evidence of this. HQNI were waiting for the dust to settle before taking any firm position, he said.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian and journalist and a member of the Taoiseach’s expert advisory group on centenaries