By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — Politicians in both London and Dublin are blaming disgruntled police officers for a series of damaging leaks, apparently deliberately intended to embarrass Sinn Fein in the run-up to the general election in the Republic. The leaks, coming in the wake of the mysterious break-in at the Castlereagh security base last month, during which secret documents were stolen, have put pressure on the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, to impose sanctions against Sinn Fein.
Meanwhile, Trimble’s rival for the party leadership, Jeffrey Donaldson, is reported to have collected the 60 signatures needed for him to call a special meeting of the party’s governing body, the Ulster Unionist Council, which could prove problematic for the stability of the power-sharing government in Belfast.
After the story, claiming the IRA is still actively targeting potential victims, was leaked to the BBC in Belfast, one London source said that of the former members of the RUC Special Branch are “leaking like a sieve.”
The British prime minister, Tony Blair, has informed the leader of the Conservative Party, Ian Duncan Smith, whose members’ names were on the “list,” that the IRA cease-fire was in no danger of breaking down.
Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, Sir John Reid, made it clear after talks with Blair and Duncan Smith in Downing Street that the government is concerned with how the information has leaked when he said: “Obviously there have been a series of leaks recently. The motive for them is unclear.”
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A senior London source, quoted in the Guardian newspaper, said, “Someone is leaking and it looks like Special Branch. It has got worse since Ronnie Flanagan [the North’s former chief constable] left.
“He kept a tight lid on Special Branch. It appears this is being done to damage Sinn Fein in the elections in the South.”
Suspicions were raised when the BBC was passed details of the IRA hit list, allegedly found by detectives during a series of raids in the wake of the break-in at Castlereagh security base.
This was quickly followed by another leak to the Sunday Telegraph that alleged that senior IRA commanders bought Russian special forces rifles in Moscow last year. British officials believe that the paper was given exaggerated details to damage Sinn Fein.
Republicans blame the leaks on what they term as “securocrats” — angry members of the security forces who want to force Sinn Fein out of government. “We wouldn’t use that term, but we appear to be in that area,” one official said.
It’s also clear that British ministers are not ready to support the police theory that the IRA were behind the Castlereagh raid without concrete evidence backing this up.
The theft of top-secret security files from the base is now turning into a major political storm, with the Ulster Unionist Party putting forth an Assembly resolution demanding a statement from Reid on the status of the IRA cease-fire.
The UUP leader, Trimble, has demanded republicans “come clean” on their involvement in the raid and said the beneficial effect of two acts of IRA decommissioning had been wrecked by the affair.
On Monday afternoon, he demanded a meeting with the Sinn Fein leadership. When this was arranged, however, he said he could not fit it into his timetable and is now expected to meet the party only after speaking to the British prime minister in London later this week.
Sir Reg Empey, Ulster Unionist Minister for Enterprise and Trade in the Northern Ireland government, told the Echo that “if there is strong evidence on IRA involvement” in the Castlereagh raid and the hit-list found afterward, “it will have a major impact on the peace process.”
“It would be up to Reid to send Sinn Fein off the pitch,” he said. However, he cautioned that “nothing is absolutely clear cut.”
The anti-Good Friday agreement DUP, seeing an opportunity to embarrass the pro-agreement UUP, has offered a counter resolution to the UUP’s, calling for Sinn Fein’s immediate expulsion from the power-sharing Executive at Stormont and saying no further clarification is required.
Reid, however, has been noticeably playing down claims of a breach in the IRA cease-fire, saying he would not “rush to judgment,” although any evidence of a breakdown would be treated seriously.
Reid also criticized what he called some “misinformed” and “perhaps mischievous” newspaper speculation about the IRA and its intentions, saying that until there is evidence to back claims of a breakdown in the cease-fire, he would not move against republicans. However, he continued to insist, as did security force sources, that there was no evidence of the IRA going back to war.
Both the Sinn Fein president and chairman, Gerry Adams and Mitchel McLaughlin, have praised the UUP leadership for its forbearance in waiting to hear if there’s any evidence to link the IRA to the break-in before making up its mind on any republican role.
During the 90-minute raid at Castlereagh on March 17, highly sensitive files were stolen from the nerve center of the most secure police base in Northern Ireland. At first, the then chief constable said he would be “surprised” if republicans or civilians were to blame.
The police focus then shifted to republicans, with eight people, including two leading republicans, arrested and held for questioning about the raid.
The IRA has now officially put on the record its denial of any involvement in the raid. Privately, senior republicans have also briefed journalists that republicans had no involvement in the raid on Castlereagh.
Sinn Fein has repeatedly denied any republican involvement, accusing the British security services of a smokescreen to hide their own culpability, while placing the blame on republicans who are involved in a bid to persuade the British government into more radical police reforms.
Colin Cramphorn, the acting chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who replaced Flanagan, says IRA responsibility remains a “major line of inquiry” although not the only one.