Category: Archive

The Untouchables

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland and Patrick Markey

Just 48 hours after a bomb exploded under the car of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in County Armagh, provoking more allegations of collusion between the local police and Protestant paramilitaries, Northern Ireland’s chief constable announced an international component to the murder investigation.

Within two weeks of the March 15 killing, a team of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations — accompanied by the bureau’s legal attachT in London — had arrived in Lurgan, and a squad of detectives from English constabularies under an assistant chief constable were dispatched to Northern Ireland to aid the RUC investigation.

It was, for some observers, an attempt to assuage nationalist concern about the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s handling the investigation of the killing of a lawyer whom the police force had earlier been accused of threatening.

The Nelson case fast became the most high-profile outside investigation in the history of the RUC, a police force that has over the years been subjected to a series of investigations and inquiries.

But while high-ranking officials were quick to credit the investigation with independence and transparency, the exact role of the outside investigators, especially those from the FBI, has been the subject of contention and controversy. Still, two months after Nelson’s death, concerns over the investigation linger, and given the North’s history of outside inquiries, many are asking where will the current investigation likely lead?

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FBI’s role

From the start, accusations, particularly from Sinn Fein, surfaced that the FBI’s role was nothing more than a public-relations sheen, an attempt to stave off criticism over the RUC’s ability to carry out an independent investigation. That charge has been vehemently denied by RUC’s chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan.

“I think it is important that when there are concerns about Mrs. Nelson’s murder on the international front that FBI involvement will give the investigation an international dimension and an independence that is unprecedented in any investigation we have had before. . . . It certainly was no public-relations exercise and won’t be,” he said during a radio interview soon after the investigation began.

Investigators were sensitive to the need, “not only to conduct the most thorough professional investigation that it’s humanly possible to conduct, but that the public see that that’s being done,” he said.

According to RUC press releases, officially, the FBI was to provide “an experienced senior agent as well as analytical personnel to assist in the early stages of the inquiry and thereafter such resources as will be appropriately required.”

Both the FBI and the English officers involved were there to ensure thoroughness and objectivity, “provide their collective investigative experience to the senior investigating officer and to the chief constable.”

That expectation was greeted with a high degree of incredulity in some nationalist quarters. Sinn Fein was not the only group skeptical about FBI involvement. A well-informed source within the security forces dismissed the FBI’s participation as a “political ploy.”

The source said RUC officers affirm that “the FBI went down very well,” because of the bureau’s hands-off approach to their involvement in the investigation. For many years the two forces have also often collaborated closely, operationally and in various training schemes.

Other criticism has also emerged. A memo from the office of U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, who recently held hearings into the RUC, appears to confirm that the FBI’s role in the Nelson case was extremely limited.

According to the internal memo, which was drafted after Smith’s staff discussed the case with the FBI’s congressional liaison, the bureau’s involvement consisted of “nothing operational. No interviews. No evidence gathering.” Nor did the FBI agents on the ground in Northern Ireland “do any leg work. Nor did they interview witnesses, nor compile records.” They “could not issue search warrants or request polygraph test or other means to challenge witnesses, but could suggest all that.”

Instead, according to the Smith memo, the FBI was “part of ’round-table’ guidance group. They were observers, supporters” who “offered independent perspectives” and were “involved in daily reviews and evaluations, but had no role of authority.”

The agency had two agents in Northern Ireland for less than three weeks. One agent was there for less than two weeks. They were accompanied by a legal attachT, John Guido, from the agency’s London office. According to the memo, “a rapid-start computer expert also arrived but was quickly returned home.” The FBI had pulled out of the on-the-ground investigation by April 16, the memo states.

While the FBI was involved, the “veneer” of their involvement focused attention away from the real issues on the ground, Smith said.

In response to several telephone calls seeking comment, Guido’s office in London said he would not be making statements about the case.

The FBI Washington headquarters had not responded to a faxed request for comment by the Irish Echo’s deadline.

Finucane comparisons

The Rosemary Nelson case has acquired political significance in the nationalist community partly because it has been compared with that of Patrick Finucane, a lawyer whose murder in 1989 also inspired allegations of police collusion. The Finucane case is currently being reinvestigated by another outside police officer, Chief Constable John Stevens, who has already conducted two inquiries into collusion allegations.

Though the FBI’s on-the-ground role now appears completed, the international mantel has been passed on to the team of English officers from five separate constabularies.

At the head of the team is Colin Port, an assistant chief constable of the Norfolk Constabulary, who has experience in investigations in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda for the United Nations National Tribunal during the 1990s. According to the RUC, Port will “assume responsibility for the day-to-day control, direction and command of the investigation.”

Port has at his disposable some 40 RUC officers and about a dozen or more English detectives, although that number has been put as high as 19 officers. The investigators are based in Lurgan RUC station, with separate teams comprising of both local and English police officers looking into different aspects of the killing, including forensics, loyalist paramilitaries, and possible collusion.

While the Norfolk police referred all calls to the RUC, in an interview with the Irish News recently Port insisted that he is still in regular contact with both the FBI’s Guido and the David Phillips of the Kent Constabulary. Phillips had entered the investigation first, but was soon replaced by Port because he could not oversee the daily operations in Lurgan.

“If I require any additional experience or assistance, they are available to me and I will not hesitate. I will go to anyone who can help me find Rosemary’s killers,” Port told the paper.

“I would reinforce the fact that I am independent. I am here to find Rosemary’s killers, I am not here for any other reason,” he said.

Certainly, the special task force investigating Nelson’s death has poured a lot of resources into the case. An RUC computer graphics expert has been asked to reconstruct every incident in which loyalist terrorists used an undercar booby trap device, similar to that which killed Nelson, according to one high-placed security official.

Dubious precedents

But criminal investigations conducted by outside police officers in Northern Ireland do not have happy precedents. In 1971, a high-powered team from Scotland Yard was flown to Belfast to investigate the IRA murder of three off-duty Scottish soldiers. They left within a few months without bringing anyone to book for the crime.

Local police officers unhappy with outside interference point out that in previous cases the RUC has been investigated by English forces that have themselves later become the subject of corruption inquiries.

This includes the West Midlands Crime squad. It took part in the John Stalker “shoot-to-kill” investigation. Many of its officers were later investigated on bribery and kickback charges, as was the Metropolitan Serious Crime squad, which under John Stevens investigated allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

Such a patchy history is at issue for communities living in the Lurgan area, said Brid Rogers, the SDLP representative from West Bann, which covers the Lurgan area.

“We have had bad experiences with outside people overseeing investigations and it coming to nothing,” Rogers said. The Stalker inquiry investigated incidents which also took place near Lurgan.

Again, with a majority of RUC officers on the team, many in the local communities harbor reservations over just how independent the investigation would be, Rogers said.

“It doesn’t matter if the John Guido and Colin Port say they have confidence in the RUC. They are missing the point. The reality on the ground is that people are not confident… Local people here don’t feel happy cooperating with the police,” she said.

Wall of silence

The investigation may be hobbled by other troubles. One police source says that the first difficulty outside officers face in Northern Ireland is the “wall of silence — no one will talk to cops.” As well, the RUC Special Branch, which has the contacts and sources of information in connection with terrorist crimes, is wary of sharing them with outside officers.

“They are lax with the intelligence we give them,” said a well-placed security source. “They may talk and endanger sources. They are only allowed to see certain documents under certain restrictions.”

Despite what officials have called the unprecedented levels of international involvement in the investigation, human rights activists are unhappy with the course of the inquiry, and with the involvement of the international composition of the investigating teams.

Martin O’Brien of the Belfast-based Committee for the Administration of Justice would like to see three separate and independent judicial inquiries. One into the murder of Patrick Finucane, another into the whole question of collusion, and a third into the Nelson killing. The model for these could be the current inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings, he said.

O’Brien, a respected human rights activist, says he is unhappy with the Nelson investigation because the RUC and English officers use “the same informational technology system.” He fears that this could allow any RUC officer who is colluding with loyalist groups to leak information about the investigation.

A police spokesman dismisses such concerns as unwarranted.

For the Rosemary Nelson Campaign, while questions remain over many aspects of the case, the investigation into aspects of alleged collusion were particularly worrying, Robbie McVeigh, a campaign spokesman, said. Surely, if anything, that required the RUC not be involved, he said.

Addressing police insistence that RUC involvement in the Nelson investigation was necessary, McVeigh said a possible alternative had already been established in the Stevens investigation into the Finucane murder. That inquiry is staffed entirely by outside investigators, McVeigh said.

“It looks odd in that context as a principle that they can’t have an inquiry without RUC involvement,” he said.

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