Category: Archive

Secret files stolen in Castlereagh break-in

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Chris Thornton

BELFAST — Senior members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are struggling this week to explain a major breach of security in the most secretive wing of the force.

Initial indications were that Sunday’s break-in at Castlereagh Police Station, which saw an officer in the shadowy Special Branch section assaulted and files reportedly stolen, was carried out by people with inside knowledge.

Three people got past several secure doors in the east Belfast station to enter offices where Special Branch, the controversial wing responsible for secret operations against paramilitaries, collates intelligence.

Inside the office, they assaulted and bound the only officer on duty during the Sunday night shift. He was also reportedly hooded. One of the intruders was reported to have had an English accent.

The Police Service said it could not say if anything had been stolen until a detailed forensic examination of the office is carried out, but several sources said sensitive information had been removed. The break-in is an embarrassment for the force, but also could have major implications for the covert operations that have continued during the peace process.

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Special Branch is believed to have informers in each of the main paramilitary organizations, and information that could expose them is believed to have been kept in the office, which was reportedly the Belfast headquarters of the secret unit. Details of other covert operations, including electronic surveillance, may also have been kept there.

Paramilitary involvement in the break-in has not been publicly ruled out, but police and political sources said whoever was responsible would have needed inside knowledge just to find the office in the complex. The police station is next to the notorious Castlereagh interrogation center — now closed — where paramilitary suspects were alleged to have been systematically assaulted in the 1970s. The Police Service chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, who is leaving his post at the end of March to become an evaluator of British police forces, personally ordered a “high level” investigation. The Policing Board, the civilian and political body that oversees the force, described the break-in as “very serious.”

John Reid, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was told about the break-in on Sunday night while in New York.

The mayor of Belfast, Jim Rodgers of the Ulster Unionist Party, said he did not believe republican or loyalist paramilitaries were involved.

“It’s someone who knows something about the workings of Castlereagh and the layout,” he said. “The whole thing stinks to high heaven.”

Rodgers compared the break-in to a fire in a police complex at Seapark, near Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, in 1990. That fire destroyed files belonging to the Stevens Inquiry, a team of British detectives brought in to investigate allegations that section of the security forces colluded with loyalists in attacks on republicans and ordinary Catholics. A former military intelligence officer has since alleged that a covert unit of the British Army set the fire.

The Stevens Inquiry team, meanwhile, is currently back in Northern Ireland, reinvestigating the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane. That case features allegations of Special Branch involvement, but there were no immediate suggestions of a direct link to the Castlereagh break-in.

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