The Irish Times view on Troubles-era crimes: rooting out police wrongdoing

Even after previous grim findings, a new report on RUC handling of loyalist paramilitaries makes for startling reading

Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman drew sadly predictable anger from unionists and former police this week, after her second report in a month on RUC handling of loyalist paramilitaries. The Ombudsman’s Operation Achille findings, published on Tuesday, considered UDA attacks which killed 11 Catholics, including five at the Sean Graham Bookmakers in February 1992. The report concluded there had been “collusive behaviour”.

The Ombudsman inherited from her predecessor the investigation of complaints by bereaved families of collusion between loyalist killers and the RUC, which was succeeded in 2001 by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Some would claim that the new term does not equate to collusion. But blocking tactics by retired police and denial by politicians do everyone ill-service.

For the preservation of authority, official government forces must be held to higher standards than those expected of murderous secret armies. A series of similar findings spotlights the central flaw in the British government’s plan to stop further investigation of Troubles crimes.

As her report explained, Ombudsman Marie Anderson is constrained to a view of "collusive behaviour" rather than collusion because of a judicial ruling two years ago that the role of her office is to investigate rather than determine criminal intent. That ruling followed an appeal by retired RUC officers. Yet a former head of the RUC Special Branch, later Assistant Chief Constable in the PSNI, wrote in the unionist Newsletter on Wednesday that failure to find "criminal" behaviour made the Ombudsman resemble the 17th century Witchfinder-General.

Even after previous grim findings, Anderson’s is a startling report, noting destruction of evidence of crime and destruction of or failing to keep records on informants. The personal protection weapon of one RUC officer, reported stolen, was used to kill a woman; the officer refused to cooperate with the investigation. A catalogue of “failures” runs from non-surveillance on loyalist importation of weapons and deactivation of weapons then handed back to informants, to specifics; eight UDA members linked to multiple murders were police informants.

Anderson also said that some investigative failings occurred because Special Branch withheld information from detectives, a practice noted by her predecessors. The absence of records plus “turning a blind eye” constituted “collusive behaviour”. Complaints by families are now vindicated.

Policing the Troubles was difficult. Unionists insist that the police, like soldiers, face disproportionate investigation. The IRA callously killed 273 members of the RUC and grievously wounded many more. Failing to investigate wrongdoing by law officers besmirches the police. Rooting it out honours those who died.