Alban Maginness: Why the case of John Stalker is a reminder of the need for our police force to be accountable
Malign influence of RUC Special Branch is reason why many Catholics are still sceptical of PSNI, says Alban Maginness
The death of John Stalker last week revived disturbing memories of the early-1980s and the appalling "shoot-to-kill" policy that the RUC used to counter the paramilitary activities of the IRA and the INLA.
In 1982, after the deaths of six civilians at the hands of the RUC in highly disputed circumstances, there were demands by the Irish government and the SDLP's deputy leader, Seamus Mallon MP, for an investigation into these incidents.
Five of the dead were members of the IRA, or the INLA. The British Government, in 1984, was eventually pressurised into holding an investigation into those disputed shootings.
John Stalker, who was the assistant chief constable of Manchester at the time, was asked to investigate. Extremely able, as a young policeman, John Stalker had earned rapid promotion within the ranks of the police and was highly regarded.
A crucial part of his investigation was into the infamous shooting dead of Michael Tighe in a hayshed near Lurgan. He was an innocent 17-year-old boy, with no paramilitary connections.
Arising out of his investigations, Stalker had become aware of a tape of that shooting, which had been recorded by the security forces.
He demanded the production of that missing tape from RUC Special Branch and MI5, as a vital piece of evidence.
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But, just at the point that this tape was to be handed over, he was suddenly relieved of his role. He was wrongly accused of associating with criminals in Manchester.
This also coincided with his submission of his interim report in June 1986 to the-then RUC Chief Constable, Sir John Hermon, in which he found serious issues with the way in which the shootings had been carried out by the RUC.
However, the following year, after these convenient allegations against him were investigated, he was exonerated and reinstated, but - tellingly - was not restored to his role investigating the RUC.
While Stalker was thwarted in his investigations, his place was taken by Colin Sampson, who came to similar conclusions and was similarly disturbed by the activities of RUC Special Branch and the British intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, who interfered with and obstructed proper investigations into these killings.
Despite Stalker's genuine efforts to uncover the truth and protect the interests of justice, the British Government - and, in particular, its attorney general, Sir Patrick Mayhew - failed to see that justice was done.
Mayhew, personally in 1988, overruled DPP-recommended prosecutions for the perversion of justice arising out of these investigations, declaring that they were not in the interests of "national security".
This disgraceful sequence of events highlighted the overwhelming supremacy, power and control that Special Branch had within the RUC. It was they who dictated to the rest of the police, especially CID, who had to play a subordinate role to the intelligence-led operations of Special Branch.
No wonder Chris Patten's report on policing referred to Special Branch, as being "a force within a force".
It was their malign influence and unhealthy alliance with the British intelligence services that led to zero confidence in the RUC by the Catholic population.
Through their nefarious actions, Special Branch and MI5 collectively undermined the rule of law and gave the IRA a huge propaganda gift.
Their activities were counter-productive and deepened the political crisis in Northern Ireland.
They also destroyed the reputation of the RUC through their questionable actions and by asserting the supremacy of intelligence operations over proper criminal investigations that could have resulted in convictions in court.
Even today, there is still a lingering sense of injustice that rankles with many nationalists, who believe that those involved in such questionable activities escaped without ever being made accountable.
The death of John Stalker is a reminder of the disturbing behaviour of the security forces during the Troubles.
Therefore, the failings of the PSNI to properly retrieve information for the Police Ombudsman's investigation into the Sean Graham bookmaker's case, in the same week as John Stalker's death, is a further reminder that investigations into the RUC's past activities and the grim spectre of collusion needs to be vigorously exposed by the PSNI if the hard-won confidence of the nationalist community in the police is to be retained.
The massacre of five Catholics in Sean Graham's bookmaker's in 1992 stands out as an outrageous sectarian attack by the UDA that sent terror through the whole Catholic community.
In such a hugely sensitive case, the PSNI's admission that its failure to disclose significant information to the Ombudsman was due to human error and, therefore, unintentional is bad enough.
However, if it is found to be intentional in any way, that will be disastrous for the PSNI.