Colleagues fed me a false line on Finucane killing, writes Alan Simpson
As a former RUC CID Detective Superintendent, I was greatly disappointed, but not surprised, at the Police Ombudsman’s recent finding that there had been “collusive behaviours” by elements of Special Branch when dealing with UDA killer gangs in the north-west of the province.
In her report, the Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, also stated that investigations into murderous attacks by this loyalist group were “prompt and thorough”, resulting in several individuals being prosecuted and convicted. She is obviously referring to the work of CID, and given my background, I feel the need to place this whole issue in context.
I joined the RUC in 1970 and served out my two years’ statutory probationary period in uniform in strife-torn north Belfast.
In December 1972, I was accepted into the CID and transferred to the Springfield Road, just across the peace line in republican west Belfast.
I became particularly close to Special Branch Detective Constable Noel McCabe, and together we managed to recruit numerous informers from within the ranks of the IRA and INLA.
In those early years, we met informers together, but there came a point when I could no longer spare the time as I was burdened with charging terrorists, court appearances and the preparation of prosecution files.
However, I was still in a good position to recruit agents in the interview room, and I gladly passed them onto Noel. Sadly, he was shot dead by the IRA in 1976.
I steadily moved up through the ranks of the CID, continuing to have good relationships with Special Branch. I respected much of their work when they frustrated killer gangs on both sides, and the work of their surveillance team is legendary.
Unfortunately, these relationships became somewhat strained in 1980 as the result of the Walker report. Patrick Walker was a member of MI5, and the Chief Constable at the time asked him to review and set out guidelines for the handling of intelligence relating to terrorism. Mr Walker decreed that Special Branch should take primacy in this field and, in future, all terrorist agents being handled by other departments should be handed over to Special Branch.
He qualified one of his guidelines by stating that when CID recruited an agent, Special Branch must be introduced from the outset. He added that any police officer who was obstructive to his new guidelines should be subject to transfer.
All of this made perfect sense to me at the time as intelligence gathering was somewhat disjointed and needed a review such as this. Patrick Walker went on to gain a knighthood and eventually became Director-General of MI5. His report is readily available on the internet.
In the years that followed, I attained the rank of Detective Chief Inspector, and was appointed as divisional head of the CID for Tennent Street and Oldpark, which took in the loyalist Shankill and republican Ardoyne.
In addition to investigating all aspects of crime, an essential element of my role was to cause disruption in all the terrorist organisations by carrying out weekly arrest and interview operations. Almost all the intelligence leading to these operations was generated by my own detectives but, in compliance with the Walker report, I submitted the names of the arrestees to Special Branch for clearance.
I was not surprised when, on many occasions, the arresting officers reported back to me that it was odd to find their suspect up and about at around at 6am, dressed, breakfasted and nervously puffing on a cigarette.
Normally, most of these would only arrive home from the local drinking club in the early hours.
On other occasions, the persons to be arrested were simply not at home.
I strongly suspected that some of these suspects were tipped off by Special Branch as they were registered informers.
If my suspicions were accurate, then Special Branch was in contravention of another aspect of the Walker report which stated that if an agent was to be arrested, CID and Special Branch should consult on the best way forward. On no occasion was this raised under my watch.
Things became so bad that on certain occasions, when we had evidence to link persons with murders, we had to resort to plucking them off the street.
The rationale behind this action was to avoid Special Branch interference, and it was a loophole we exploited. I’m not proud of this action, but it was a great deal better than attending another murder scene. This did little to improve relationships between CID and Special Branch.
On occasion, I could see that Special Branch were going beyond the pale as they had no strong controlling mechanism to bring them into line.
At times I reasoned with them by pointing out that, as CID officers, our every decision, our every act, would come under the closest scrutiny when a case came to trial. It was not unusual for a detective to spend a day in the witness box under cross-examination by defence barristers.
Eventually, I reached the rank of Detective Superintendent and was appointed as overall head of the CID for the whole of north Belfast, which stretched from the peace line as far out as Ballyclare.
Shortly after taking up this post, one of the most notorious murders of the Troubles took place — the killing of Pat Finucane. I was the senior investigation officer in the case.
My team and I put a huge amount of effort into this case, and I ran it until all leads had expired. Several months later, Special Branch supplied me with the names of three UFF men who they alleged were involved.
I had them arrested. John Stevens was in the province at the time, working on his third inquiry. He took a particular interest in these arrests, and I was greatly embarrassed when one of the suspects made it known he had been on remand in Crumlin Road prison on the date of the crime. I checked this and found it to be true, so Special Branch had fed me a false line.
When the inquest into the murder took place, I was the only senior police officer to give evidence, and took a lot of flak from the family’s lawyer with not a Special Branch man in sight. I now know a great deal about how the killing was carried out, and it is shocking in its detail.
Looking back on that dreadful era, there should have been a controlling mechanism for Special Branch and firm action taken over events which were certain to rebound against the RUC in later years, as is now happening.
Alan Simpson is a former RUC CID Detective Superintendent