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'Sectarian murder probe detective replaced amid flaw claims'

A detective who led the police investigation into the murder of a Catholic by a loyalist mob in Northern Ireland was replaced after allegations of flaws, it was claimed today.

Chief Superintendent Maynard McBurney was taken off the Robert Hamill case following accusations by the Police Ombudsman's Office that the RUC resisted installing surveillance equipment at the home of an officer believed to be protecting one of the suspects, a Belfast inquiry into the murder heard.

Reserve Constable Robert Atkinson later faced conspiracy charges linked to the death of Mr Hamill, 25, who was kicked to death by loyalists in Portadown in April 1997, but the case never went to trial.

Mr McBurney, who died three months ago, was in charge of the inquiry in 2000 but was replaced after David Wood, then executive director of investigations at the Ombudsman's office, was called in to carry out an independent probe for then Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.

Lawyer for the police Martin Woolfe said: "In December 2000 you had reached the view that you had no confidence in his (McBurney's) ability to continue to conduct the investigations.

"You reported the concerns to the Chief Constable (Sir Ronnie Flanagan), he took those concerns seriously, almost immediately agreed to the replacement of McBurney."

Mr Wood, who left the Ombudsman's office in 2006, said there was inadequate preparation for covert methods and police feared how that would be interpreted by the Protestant community of which they were a part.

"The RUC were resisting the prospect of intrusive surveillance. I saw it at the time culturally. I think it was about the stomach to do this to their own," he said.

"There was also, I think, some security issues among some senior officers... they live in the community, Atkinson was seen as part of that community and perhaps part of the loyalist or the unionist side in that community and they were fearful how that would be interpreted in the community."

Eventually Sir Ronnie authorised the surveillance.

Mr Wood said he had been told that Mr Atkinson was a "hero" in his community, although counsel for Mr Atkinson's family, Margaret Ann Dinsmore QC, said he was shot at by loyalists and his home was armoured.

Sir Edwin Jowitt is chairing an independent Inquiry Panel which is investigating whether any wrongful act of omission by the RUC facilitated Mr Hamill's death and whether the investigation was carried out with due diligence.

Mr Wood claimed police dismissed his efforts to use covert surveillance as "using a hammer to crack a walnut".

"The fact they could not get the kit... I just could not understand that because there were emerging situations where you would need that," he added.

"They had no wider strategy, they were not coming forward and saying 'This is what we are doing'."

He added: "They had no information or intelligence about the movements of the family or other opportunities there was to do that (put in surveillance equipment).

"They had not done their basic work so their strategy was flawed to me."

Charles Adair QC, who represents serving and retired officers, accused Mr Wood of rushing matters.

"You blew it, Mr Wood, you were totally wrong. Mr Atkinson and the others realised within a matter of hours that their house was being bugged because of the botched way that you suggested this operation be done," he added.

Mr Wood responded: "Where there was evidence and strong information available that there was perversion of the course of justice, I feel that there should have been action taken."

Barra McGrory QC, counsel for the Hamill family, said: "However genuine and however dedicated these senior officers within the RUC who were working on this case were... they were hindered and held back in the deployment of these methods that you felt were the appropriate methods because of your concerns for the effect that would have within the police force."

Belfast Telegraph


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