By Jack Holland
Police informers throughout Belfast have been contacted by their handlers reassuring them that “they are not at risk.” The reassurances came in the wake of the robbery on St. Patrick’s night of secret files from Castlereagh police station. Three unknown men walked in and walked out with sensitive documents without arousing suspicion in what has been tagged Northern Ireland’s Watergate. A reliable source said that the police contacted both current and former agents.
Special Branch officers have also been asked whether they wanted to change their telephone numbers, since they may have been compromised.
The stolen files are thought to contain the code names of informers matched with their handlers’ contact numbers.
Speculation has mounted over who it was carried out the robbery. The perpetrators carried false military passes and showed an intimate knowledge of the complex, making their way to the Belfast Special Branch contact office for informers. It had been moved there only in the previous five days.
“This is not terrorist oriented,” said a veteran security officer. As proof, he said that during the robbery, the three, after tying and gagging the only constable on duty in the office, massaged the officer’s feet to make sure his blood was still circulating, and regularly checked his pulse. Paramilitaries would not have been so concerned, the security veteran said. He also said that “the speed and efficiency with which the bound and gagged the duty officer showed a professional touch.”
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Press speculation has pointed toward a wing of British military intelligence known as the Joint Services Group, formerly called the Force Research Unit. As FRU, it was involved in the recruiting of informers in republican and loyalist groups, most notoriously Brian Nelson, who was the UDA’s chief intelligence officer in the late 1980s. He was said to have been responsible for gathering intelligence on Patrick Finucane, the human rights lawyer murdered by the UDA in February 1989. Questions have been raised about FRU’s role in that killing and its failure to prevent it.
In late 1990, offices of the police team led by John Stevens, who was investigating allegations of collusion between loyalists and elements of the security forces, mysteriously caught fire. It was subsequently alleged by a former FRU member that members of that unit were responsible.
However, it has been strongly denied that the latest incident is related to the Finucane case.
“The office which was robbed did not contain that kind of material,” said a police source. “It was just a contact office.” Neither was there anything there, said the source, which would have been of evidentiary use in a trial.
When police officers showed up for work on Monday, March 18, they were told they could not open their desks or safes without the presence of a uniformed officer. It was thought that the robbers may have hidden the material somewhere in the complex.
The police are trying to downplay the risk to their human sources. It is impossible to deduce informers’ real names from their code names. Code names are taken from a directory and are used only once. The code name also designates an operation, which is associated with that source.
Though it may not be possible to identify the informer, a scrutiny of the police officers’ contact numbers could identify the area of Belfast in which they, and therefore their sources, are operating. While this would narrow the range of possible informants somewhat, it would not provide any immediate clues as to their identities.
The question as to the motivation of the robbers is equally open to various interpretations. Rivalry between the different intelligence branches — military intelligence, BOX (M15 and M16) and Special Branch — has always been endemic. It reached something of a climax in 1994 when BOX moved to oust Special Branch from controlling wire-tapping operations in Northern Ireland. It has been suggested by some police officers that the recent incident is part of an attempt to discredit the Special Branch, already shaken by controversies over the Finucane murder and its handling of the Omagh bombing investigation. It is truly a heady cocktail of conspiracies and it has left the Special Branch — to paraphrase James Bond — both “shaken and stirred.”