Belfast Telegraph

The PSNI vault: It's our Pandora's box on the Troubles

A maximum-security PSNI vault holds millions of documents relating to the so-called 'dirty war'. But on the eve of a major RTE documentary about collusion, Brian Rowan says it's not just the police and security services who should fear the secrets which those files contain.

The past is not just about collusion. Not just about the Special Branch, the military, MI5 and their agents. Their stories are part of what has come to be called a "dark side" or a "dirty war". They are a poison that seeps  from the past and, at times, floods the present.

Stories such as Stakeknife, about the Army agent Freddie Scappaticci, who had a killing role inside the IRA. It has been described as the "culling" of informers; one agent interrogating other agents and presenting them for execution.

For how long Scappaticci operated in that role still has a question mark, but it was long enough to ask many questions of him, those who handled him and the IRA. He was treated differently. Not forced into a public confession, but allowed to leave Belfast, still denying his agent role.

I got to speak to him briefly before he fled the city, in May 2003, answering a few questions and leaving before any more could be asked. His story is part of a much bigger story; part of an unanswered and unforgotten past. And how that bigger story is eventually addressed remains a challenge.

Last year, in a speech to the British Irish Association, Chief Constable George Hamilton said there was a need for "all of us to be selfless, to go beyond our comfort zones and have challenging conversations, such as the one initiated by the Attorney General (John Larkin) almost a year ago".

This was a reference to Larkin's controversial suggestion that a line should be drawn under all Troubles-era investigations. Hamilton said: "Judicial closure is increasingly unlikely in the majority of cases."

Now he has been speaking to RTE for a documentary - Collusion - that will be shown next week.

I have been working on that film with New Red TV in Belfast, with journalists Brendan McCourt and John Ware, the veteran BBC Panorama reporter.

Hamilton takes the discussion beyond collusion, beyond the police, the Army and the State, to opening the police "vault". Part of his interview will be part of the documentary and here I set out a more detailed account of his thinking.

"It's a colourful metaphor - 'vault' - but let's use that," he said. "If the vault was to be opened, I know there will be literally millions of documents." He means millions of documents that will begin to address the past in a much wider frame.

"I don't think we should be exempt from scrutiny, from investigation, in the police service, past or present. I think that's good... but I actually think other people have stories to tell and questions to answer and I'm hoping that (when) this metaphorical vault, as you've described it, is opened up, then I have no doubt that out of that will pour material that will present challenges for other people in the system," the Chief Constable said.

"What I'm saying is that I expect the Historical Investigations Unit to have a comprehensive look, a more generic look, a more proactive look at the material that the police have retained.

"And the other point to remember is that our record-keeping may not have been the best, but we did keep records - and I'm not just talking about intelligence documents, I'm talking about plans for covert operations, I'm talking about minutes of meetings.

"My understanding is that the IRA, the UVF and the other players in this didn't keep notes or minutes of meetings or records of decisions. We did. And I think all of that has left us somewhat exposed.

"I think it was the right thing to do. I don't regret it. But it has meant there has been a one-sided focus to the role of the police... and I think the Historical Investigations Unit going to look at all of the material that we are sitting on was bound to bring a more proactive, a more balanced perspective to what actually happened during the period of the Troubles."

What he is saying is that opening the vault will pose challenges for republicans and loyalists.

"Well, that's the common-sense conclusion one can come to.

"One would expect that if we are sitting on millions of pages of intelligence documents from a very busy time when there were killings happening almost on a daily basis and some sort of atrocity happening on a regular basis, you would expect that there will be material there that will present challenges for individuals and opportunities for investigators. That's the way it works."

The Historical Investigations Unit is one of the pillars that will form a structure for addressing the past. It is part of what was agreed in the Stormont House talks, something that reads back into the Haass/O'Sullivan negotiations and that sits alongside an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group.

That wider plan would also include a storytelling Archive and Acknowledgement elements, as well as support for victims and survivors.

And the Chief Constable is saying that, within this framework, the stories of the past will be stretched beyond collusion; that we will see a wider context; that there will be an examination of all the sides and all the orders and directions; that it is not just about the police, military and security service (MI5), but also about the IRA and the loyalists.

"What we need is a legislative basis for information to be shared," the Chief Constable told me.

"And when that happens, people who have a legitimate access to information also take on an onerous responsibility around protection of life and protection of people's privacy."

All of this depends on implementing the paper agreement made in the Stormont House talks. Those are decisions for Government and parties currently stuck in a political logjam over welfare reform.

George Hamilton knows that you cannot police the present and the past - that you cannot do both.

Old-style policing remains a part of new policing, because there is not yet the key to open the doors of the vault and to take those millions of documents into a different place and a different process.

But when that happens - if that happens - then the past will become a much bigger discussion.

It won't just be about collusion and the agents, but about all of the killings and all of the decisions.

A major part of RTE's documentary will be an examination of what has been described as the "wilful and abject failure" by successive Governments to put in place a legal framework for agent-handling.

And one contributor makes the point that Whitehall cannot walk away from the conflict period, leaving "Ulstermen" to carry the blame and the heavy weight of collusion.

  • Collusion, RTE One, Monday, June 15, 9.35pm

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