The details were listed on a dossier which went “missing” from the top security British military/police base at Castlereagh in East Belfast in July 2004 and is now believed to be in the hands of the UDA.
Dozens of residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast were informed of the threat first while others in the North and West of the city — including Adams, Assembly member Gerry Kelly and Ardoyne councilor Margaret McClenaghan –were later warned
The Castlereagh base is used by the British army’s intelligence unit and the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Special Branch. Twenty-eight soldiers, believed to be members of the Royal Irish Regiment, were moved to other duties after the document disappeared last year.
One soldier was arrested but none have been charged with stealing the document. Kelly said British minister Ian Pearson, personally assured him, shortly after the theft was discovered, that the UDA did not have the list in its possession.
He now says that the estimated four hundred people involved were put at added risk for sixteen months because they were not warned, despite newspaper claims that the UDA had the list.
British officials initially tried to avoid the document’s disappearance becoming a major incident by dismissing the theft as a “non story,” even as the UDA declared it was in their hands.
Adams’s wife was informed of the threat while she was at home on her own (he was in Dublin on party business). Others found police officers on their doorsteps to inform them, although only minimal detail was divulged on the scale and nature of the threat.
Sinn Fein assembly member, Alex Maskey, said that the incident proved that, as recently as July of last year, the British state was still “spying on Sinn Fein at a time when we were trying to advance the peace process.”
London, he said, had “attempted to cover up this collusion scandal since last July. They have endangered people’s lives for long enough. All those who have had their details passed to the loyalist gang must now be informed and the British must come clean on the extent of this operation.”
Other republicans accused the British of “cynically remaining silent on the collusion threat to avoid jeopardizing IRA peace moves.”
“The British government, British ministers and the PSNI have allowed at least 400 people and their families to live under threat for over 16 months without informing them of the danger,” said Martin McGuinness.
“The cynicism with which British officials decided to put people’s lives further at risk rather than expose the truth about wrongdoing within their ranks is totally unacceptable. This is very serious,” he said.
Kelly has demanded immediate meetings with the British and Irish governments to demand answers to what he also described as a “cover-up.”
Meanwhile, the row over British plans to provide a limited amnesty for fugitives from justice, allowing them to return home, is escalating. Not only are unionists implacably opposed, three human rights bodies are also concerned.
The well-respected British Irish Rights Watch group has warned that agents of the state, who might eventually be charged with collusion, may be given a blanket amnesty.
The group said the proposed bill to allow fugitives from justice (the so-called “on the runs”) to return back to Northern Ireland could also allow police and British soldiers off the hook.
“This bill, if enacted, will allow anyone who committed a crime prior to 10th April 1998 to claim that his or her motive was terrorist and to get out of jail free,” said a statement from BIRW.
“What concerns us most is that agents of the state who colluded with terrorists will not be held to account, because they will be able to claim that any crimes they committed were carried out in the effort to combat terrorism,” it said.