POLICE were informed of a murder bid on an INLA leader three days before he was gunned down at his home by the UDA.
Despite senior cops being aware of an imminent attack on Ronnie Bunting, the killing still took place.
Sunday Life today lifts the lid on the notorious 1980 assassination, naming the UDA boss who tipped off his handlers as Jackie Courtney, who rose to second-in-command of a deadly unit of the gang based in the Ballysillan area of north Belfast.
He was not involved in the actual murder but knew enough about it to inform police three days before it took place.
Well-placed security sources revealed that within 48 hours of the slaughter, Courtney, who died in 2018, was debriefed by Billy Mooney, the head of the RUC's Regional Crime Squad, during a meeting at the Shaw's Bridge beauty spot.
Courtney's warning had been passed to senior officers, yet Bunting (32) was still gunned down alongside his INLA associate Noel Little (45, left).
His wife Suzanne Bunting was also badly wounded as she tried to fight off the assassins.
Her solicitor Kevin Winters, who is challenging government attempts to block a new inquest into the double murder, said: "State collusion with the security forces doesn't really begin to describe what was an obvious State-directed killing against Ronnie Bunting.
"The latest revelations don't come as any real surprise to the Bunting family.
"Like many other conflict-bereaved families across all political and religious divides, they have been conditioned to the ever-increasing evidence of collusion throughout the decades.
"The new information will greatly assist the various ongoing legal actions pending in the courts for the family."
Ronnie Bunting was a prime target for both the UDA and UVF, having been born a Protestant and growing up in the Dundonald area of east Belfast.
He was also the son of Major Ronald Bunting, a close associate of former DUP leader Ian Paisley.
While studying at Queen's University, Bunting Jnr became involved with the Official IRA and later its violent INLA offshoot, leading to loyalists branding him a "turncoat".
The keen marksman was linked to several killings in Belfast and is believed to have been involved in planning the INLA murder of Conservative MP Airey Neave in 1979.
The politician was blown up by a car bomb at the House of Commons car park in London. Because of this, Bunting topped both UDA and UVF death lists.
On October 12, 1980, three days before the INLA leader's assassination, loyalist Jackie Courtney met with one of his RUC handlers near a car auction on the outskirts of north Belfast.
The pair drove to the Monagh bypass in the west of the city, stopping at a grass verge overlooking the fiercely republican Turf Lodge district, where Bunting lived with his wife Suzanne and three young children at a house on Downfine Gardens.
Situated in a cul-de-sac deep in the warren-like estate, its location offered a degree of safety from any would-be attackers.
Pointing to the street from his vantage point high on the Monagh bypass, Jackie Courtney informed his RUC handler that someone would be killed there within the coming days.
They then got into the car and drove to Downfine Gardens, where the UDA man identified Bunting's home.
As they moved off, the vehicle was stopped by an Army patrol. The plain-clothed RUC officer, who had to show his warrant card to get past, later confided to friends that he thought the soldiers were acting "suspiciously".
After dropping Courtney off, the policeman contacted one of his superiors, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, telling him about the looming murder bid at the Downfine Gardens property.
Three days later, Ronnie Bunting and his friend Noel Little were shot dead in the house.
The UDA gang broke down the front door with a sledgehammer during the early hours of the morning, firing repeatedly at the INLA chief when he confronted them on the upstairs landing.
Little was targeted while sleeping in a spare room. Suzanne Bunting survived being hit with four bullets while trying to defend herself from the gunmen.
The following day, the RUC officer who warned his senior that an attack on the Bunting house was imminent met with him at New Barnsley RUC station.
He was ordered to produce his UDA informant Jackie Courtney for a meeting with Billy Mooney, who headed up the RUC's 'A Squad', which dealt exclusively with terrorist crime.
Within 24 hours, the three were sitting in a car at Shaw's Bridge in south Belfast. Mooney ordered the detective out of the vehicle while he debriefed Courtney.
The officer later complained to colleagues that a fixed Army checkpoint next to the New Barnsley station had been removed, allowing Bunting's killers to escape into the loyalist Springmartin estate.
Billy Mooney, the veteran RUC Regional Crime Squad chief who debriefed Jackie Courtney, died aged 66 in 1995.
The RUC officer who handled the UDA informant and who warned about an attack on the Bunting house is still alive, as is the superior to whom this information was passed. The latter refused to help with the Police Ombudsman's 2007 Operation Ballast investigation, which established collusion between some RUC officers and UVF killers in north Belfast.
Double agent Jackie Courtney died in 2018, having been sidelined by the UDA in the late 1980s.
He was suspected of providing information that led to the convictions of three Ballysillan loyalists for two sectarian murders.
UDA sources told Sunday Life that a sheet of paper containing suspected RUC phone numbers was found tucked behind the sun visor of a car Courtney owned.
"He was always tinkering with cars and that discovery did for him," said an insider. "Nothing was ever proven, but he was sidelined after that.
"Jackie was never a gunman - he was more into robberies and extortion. It comes as no surprise to be told that he was working for the police."
RUC documentation seen by this newspaper names the loyalists who led the Ballysillan UDA at the time of the Ronnie Bunting murder in 1980.
They include Tommy McCreery, a hitman now aged 75 who fled to Spain after being shot and seriously injured during an internal dispute in 1991. His wannabe killer was Ken Barrett, who was later convicted of the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane.
Also in a Ballysillan UDA leadership role in 1980 was Willie Fisher, who left Northern Ireland under a death sentence from the gang in the late 1980s. Now aged 67, he runs a pub in Scotland.
Other police documentation unearthed by Sunday Life names Robert Montgomery (62) as "in charge of UDA Ballysillan".
There is no suggestion any of those identified were among the gunmen who killed Ronnie Bunting, and at the time the UDA was a legal organisation, with it not being outlawed until 1992.
But what the documents do highlight is the high-grade intelligence the RUC had on the gang from top-level informants such as Jackie Courtney.
Suggestions that elements of the Army were directly involved in the Bunting murder, in revenge for the fatal attack on Tory MP Airey Neave (left) a year earlier, have been dismissed by loyalists.
One told us: "The UDA killed Ronnie Bunting. The Army wasn't involved.
"The targeting was carried out by the UVF and there was sharing of information which, of course, may originally have come from elements within the security forces.
"Let's be clear, though: it was UDA members who pulled the trigger."