By Jack Holland
The North holds many secrets. This is partly because it is the playground of several powerful, sophisticated organizations whose life-blood is information — acquiring it and hoarding it. Two of them have emerged as the chief suspects in the break in last month at Castlereagh police station in East Belfast: the Provisional IRA and British intelligence, either BOX (MI5) or the army’s Force Research Unit (FRU), aided and abetted perhaps by errant police officers. The Provisionals and FRU already have a history of penetrating high-security (army and police) targets in the North. In 1996, the Provisionals got into the British army’s heavily protected headquarters in Lisburn. FRU was involved in a raid on a police office in 1990, during which information relating to collusion allegations was destroyed.
What we know: Three well-dressed persons walked into the station’s two-story office complex on the night of March 17, went to Room 220, the Special Branch Belfast regional office, overpowered, tied up, blindfolded and gagged the on-duty officer there, then went through the files and departed after about 20 minutes.
Let us look at the “for” and “against” for the two competing theories.
The argument for an inside job (where inside means involving a wing of British intelligence) — Means: insiders score big here, obviously. The calm and assured way the robbers carried out the operation indicates they knew their way around and what they were about. They did not abuse or harm the on-duty officer, other than to incapacitate him, and they saw to his welfare during the raid.
Motive: there were two main alternatives. The first, which emerged quite quickly, was that the object of the exercise was “political.” That is, the raid was meant to further discredit or embarrass the Special Branch, following the heavy criticism of the unit because of its handling of the Omagh bombing investigation, and accusations of collusion because of its role in relation to several controversial cases, such as the Finucane murder. The aim would be to enhance calls to whittle down or dissolve entirely the role of the Special Branch. To support this theory, some point to the speed with which Sir John Chilcott was appointed to investigate with three defined tasks: to find out how it was done, what was taken, and how to avoid it in the future. Following the investigation, Chilcott might well recommend that intelligence should be transferred away from the Branch to a more secure intelligence-gathering agency — BOX, for example.
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Others suggest a more obvious motive: to acquire information. It could directly involve the murder of lawyer Pat Finucane in 1991. The insiders were seeking information either to prevent it from falling into the hands of the team of detectives under Sir John Stevens, who is leading the investigation into the murder or alternatively because there was something in Room 220 that they needed to know. It may have been the records of contacts made between the sources and handlers, since presumably the police would need to have easy access to the history of each source and keep them on hand.
The argument against an inside job: The political motive is vitiated by the fact that it is probably not necessary for any government agency to indulge in James Bond tactics to push for drastic reform of the Special Branch, which is on the cards anyway. BOX can be ruled out since it has an effective lobby in government circles, which already won it a battle with the London Metropolitan Special Branch in the early 1990s over who should have primary responsibility for the war against terrorism in Britain. Military intelligence (especially FRU) might be audacious — or crass — enough but would gain no political advantage.
The second cited motive, that the raiders were after information, is undermined if what we are told that Room 220 is true — that it was the contact room between informers and their handlers, and that its files contained informers’ code names and handlers’ contact numbers. Then insiders would surely have known that there would be no useful information to be gleaned from this as the code names give no indication of the informer’s identity. Insiders would have known that the crown jewels of the Special Branch are kept in police headquarters at Knock. It is where the main offices of all the units of “E” department (that is, the Branch) are located as well as their files and records.
Though the on-duty officer was not harmed, he was threatened with violence.
The argument for a Provisional IRA job — Means: an opportunity arose, thanks to information supplied perhaps by a sympathizer who worked in Castlereagh, and the IRA seized it. The raid bears a resemblance to some previous IRA jobs carried out by a special intelligence-gathering cell set up in the mid-1990s in its use of non-republican operators and sleepers, the aim of which is to penetrate targets not normally accessible to the IRA.
Motive: to gather information about Special Branch sources, especially those such as Steak Knife who have penetrated the upper echelons of the organization. The IRA would not have known that the files in Room 220 would be of little use to them in this regard (again assuming that we have been told the truth about what they contained).
The argument against a Provisional IRA job: It was too risky, given that the cease-fire still holds, and Sinn Fein is in government. Since the IRA is on cease-fire, any information about sources could not be acted on anyway, so why run that risk?
Conclusion: We may never know for certain, but at this date, the Provisionals seem to be the stronger candidate. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has already moved from outright denial to saying, “I have no evidence that republicans were involved in the business of Castlereagh.” The sequence is similar to that following the arrest of the three Irishmen in Colombia last August. First, outright denial that one of them, Niall Connolly, was a Sinn Fein representative in Cuba, then equivocation, and finally a qualified acceptance that he was, though the leadership didn’t really know about it.
It is possible for the IRA to distance itself from the raid without outright denial. For example, the IRA leadership could well have given the green light to continue intelligence gathering operations. The Army Council would not need to know the specifics of each operation, much less would the Sinn Fein leadership. Instead, all they need to know is enough to give them — in the words of the late great President Nixon — plausible deniability.