13 April 2002
The King is dead! Long live the King!
Chief Constables come and go - but the central problem remainsBy Gerry Kelly, MLA, Sinn Fein Spokesperson on Policing
The retirement of Ronnie Flanagan brings to an end the career of a controversial figure who is the embodiment of politicized policing in the north of Ireland - macho, uncompromising, impervious to criticism, secretive, immune to prosecution. This is unsurprising for he and his predecessors have enjoyed the support of the political establishment for everything this has involved. And that includes torture, shoot-to-kill, collusion and perverting the course of justice. In particular Flanagan is synonymous with the rationale and activities of the Special Branch over a prolonged period of time and it is no exaggeration to state that his personal career path corresponds precisely with some of the most criticised aspects of policing throughout the duration of the conflict. Special Branch policing is the rotten apple of policing. The killing of William Stobie, revelations about the Special Branch and the Omagh Bomb and the recent Castlereagh shenanigans all prove that to be the case.
It could not be otherwise. All other aspects of policing in the north are subordinate to the Special Branch, especially in relation to the potential arrest, questioning and charging of individuals. The Walker report, written in the early 1980s by a senior MI5 member, makes clear that the Special Branch handling of intelligence sources enjoys precedence over considerations of justice and the need to protect individuals from harm. Even to the extent that a Special Branch agent can break the law with impunity.
Special Branch policing is also highly secretive and specialised. It has recently been revealed - further to the publication of Patten and his comments about a 'force within a force' - that the overwhelming majority of Branch officers have been in place for over 15 years. Only two officers had served less than five years. These nameless and faceless Special Branch officers have developed a self-regulating, self-replicating cabal enjoying disproportionate power both within and beyond policing which has also extended to the power over life and death on many occasions
The Special Branch hegemony over policing plays itself out on the ground in various ways and usually against the interests of society. For instance, even as demands increase for greater powers in relation to crime, and to drug use in particular, the Special Branch are known to allow drug dealers and other criminals (especially car thieves) to operate with impunity in return for information on other criminals or on individuals of interest to Special Branch. There is clear evidence that Special Branch operatives and agent provocateurs have been involved in activities up to and including murder. Unionists have been prepared to condone this activity so long as it involves the deaths of nationalists, whether combatants or not. But it does not stop there. Members of the unionist community, including crown force members, have been killed and injured by Special Branch agents and many commercial attacks on towns have similarly been allowed to proceed either for political effect or to protect Special Branch agents. The recent revelations about Omagh merely reinforce conclusions drawn in relation to the unaccountable nature of the Special Branch. That is, there was a conspiracy to prevent Special Branch activities from coming to light during the investigation by the Ombudsman. The Special Branch publicly, with the support of Ronnie Flanagan, attempted to undermine the Ombudsman through personal attacks on her office. Yet, not one member of the Special Branch or the PSNI was even subjected to disciplinary sanction.
But Ronnie Flanagan's personal biography merely mirrors that of the wider Special Branch activities throughout his individual career. It is the rule not the exception. Attempts to present his retirement as the demise of this particular style of policing are pure hype. In the 1980s he was central to the operation of the Tasking and Co-Ordination Groups (TCGs) which were instrumental in planning shoot-to-kill operations and co-ordinating the subsequent attempts to cover-up the deliberate nature of these events. Special Branch also acted collectively to undermine the subsequent Stalker inquiry into these incidents. Stalker described the role of the Branch as akin to that of a Latin American death squad. Flanagan was personally involved in planning and directing of the shooting of eight IRA operatives and one civilian at Loughgall in 1988. He was head of the RUC intelligence co-ordination and surveillance section, when Pat Finucane was murdered in 1989 and must therefore have been aware that Special Branch agents were involved in the planning and co-ordination of this murder, and the murder of dozens of others during the same period, which have involved RUC Special Branch agents such as William Stobie, Tommy Lyttle, Ken Barrett and the British military intelligence agent Brian Nelson. These agents were not only allowed to plan and participate in selected murders they were also provided with intelligence material by their handlers in order to prosecute a targetted campaign of terror against nationalist targets. The Stevens inquiry into aspects of this relationship was effectively undermined by Special Branch and other intelligence agencies, including attempts to shield Nelson from scrutiny, and the deliberate destruction of premises used by the inquiry team. Special Branch agents in republican organisations have performed similar functions and have also been permitted to kill and injure in a carefully controlled attempt to enhance their role and influence. As Chief Constable, Flanagan has continued to protect the activities of his former colleagues and subordinates, most notably in relation to the controversial murder of human rights solicitor Rosemary Nelson, and in relation to Special Branch involvement in, and awareness of, the Omagh bomb.
When the Patten report was published, it was viewed as having the potential to mark the end of Special Branch style policing as we know it in Ireland, neatly closing the circle on generations of politicized policing, counter-insurgency and dirty tricks. Recent events demonstrate that this optimistic perspective is premature. * The Special Branch remains intact, albeit under a new managerial structure. * A disproportionate number of Special Branch members have recently been promoted to the rank of Superintendent. Their malign influence will continue to contaminate attitudes towards policing in Ireland. * The recent so-called break-in at Castlereagh reinforces and entrenches the serious and justified concerns about Special Branch activities. Even Police Board members are ignorant of the most rudimentary facts concerning what material has been taken and why. No-one in their right mind is persuaded that anyone other than employees of the British Government are behind this. The traditional impunity with which they carried out their stroll through this Special Branch unholy of unholies is grounded in the confidence that there is no structural method of accountability in relation to Special Branch or those who direct them. For instance, those appointed to conduct inquiries into this affair are totally partial. John Chilcott, the head of investigation, was the head of MI5 in the north of Ireland from 1990-1997. As such he effectively controlled and directed all aspects of intelligence work, including that of Special Branch. Many of the events highlighted above occurred during his tenure. There is every incentive therefore to ensure that the murky activities of his secretive undercover state agents will never come to light.
In all probability the Castlereagh frolics are about attempts to minimise the repercussions for MI5 and the Special Branch from their collusion with loyalists. Indeed, it is possible that the arrest of UDA man 'Mo' Courtney is related.
Flanagan leaves under a cloud, still praising the RUC in an uncritical manner, still unapologetic for his role in the centralisation and development of the Special Branch, confident that this central role can continue in an unfettered manner in the absence of a transparent method of accountability which could exercise appropriate control over politicized policing methods. His personal presence will not be missed by nationalists. His personal legacy will unfortunately remain for some time to come. The British Government, John Chilcott and the secret society which has run the 6 counties for 30 years are seeking to ensure that it is a case of 'The King is dead! Long live the King!. This is not acceptable!
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