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N. Irish police hid crimes, report says

A study finds the force covered up or ignored killings and other felonies committed by informants in the 1990s.

January 23, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — In what the Irish prime minister called a disturbing report that "paints a picture of despicable past behavior," an ombudsman's investigation released Monday found evidence that Northern Ireland police looked the other way or actively covered up at least 10 killings and many other crimes committed by informants in the 1990s.

But the ombudsman said police records were often lost or possibly destroyed, making it unlikely that any of the officers could ever be prosecuted.

The report, which follows a three-year investigation by Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, is not the first to identify police collusion but is the most authoritative. It comes as British Prime Minister Tony Blair is seeking a power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland that has been delayed by concerns over police fairness.

"Today's report shows why police reform was so essential in Northern Ireland," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, Blair's partner in seeking the deal.

Britain's envoy to Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, said the report "makes for extremely uncomfortable reading."

"The serious failings that have been exposed ... cannot be justified, and no one should attempt to justify them," Hain said. "Those involved, a small number of officers, failed in their fundamental duty to protect the community."

But Hain said the province's police system has changed in recent years.

"New, robust systems are in place to ensure that the failures of the past will not and cannot be repeated," he said.

The investigation looked primarily at a unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force, an outlawed paramilitary organization opposed to separating Northern Ireland from Britain. The UVF has carried out bombings, killings and drug operations since the 1960s. The UVF unit scrutinized in the report operated in north Belfast and Newtownabbey from 1991 to 2003.

The inquiry was launched on a complaint by the father of a 22-year-old member of the UVF, Raymond McCord Jr. The younger McCord was clubbed to death in 1997 in what authorities now believe was a drug dispute. His father believes the killers were never prosecuted because they were police informants.

One of the men believed linked to that killing was paid more than $159,000 for his tips to the police over the years, the report says.

Investigators found "there was intelligence strongly indicating the involvement of [UVF] informants" in at least 10 killings, including the younger McCord's, as well as dozens of other crimes, including attempted murders, a bombing, armed robbery, extortion, hijacking and drug dealing.

Investigators said they found evidence suggesting that the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch, which monitored informants, prevented some of its contacts from being brought to justice, in some cases interfering with the work of other detectives.

The RUC was Britain's designated police force in Northern Ireland throughout most of the period known as the Troubles. It sought to quell the Irish Republican Army rebellion and also tame violence among Protestant militants. IRA leaders have long alleged collusion between the RUC and loyalist paramilitary groups.

O'Loan, the ombudsman, said 40 officers refused to cooperate with the inquiry, though some of them were approached as witnesses, not suspects.

"It is not a question of my frustration," she said at a news conference in Belfast, carried by the Press Assn. "How do the victims feel when they hear this? These are people who held very senior positions in the organization."

She said officers told her they were "fighting a war against terrorists.... In order to do this they needed the flexibility. I can understand how difficult it was. What I cannot understand now, given the level of knowledge and the intelligence that was building in the system, is that they just continued to employ these informants."

Her report was carried on her office's website, www.policeombudsman.org.

Chief Constable Huge Orde, who heads the revamped police force, said the report made "shocking, disturbing and uncomfortable reading."

"It does not reflect well on the individuals involved, particularly those responsible for their management and oversight," he said. "While I appreciate that it cannot redress some of the tragic consequences visited upon the families of those touched by the incidents investigated in this report, I offer a wholehearted apology for anything done or left undone."

But an organization of senior retired police officers released a statement calling the findings "unfounded and incapable of substantiation," saying the report ruined reputations while failing to compile documented evidence of impropriety.

"The officers firmly believe that they have always acted in the best interests of the pursuit of justice, seeking to minimize the threat to the community and to maximize the effectiveness of the counter-terrorism drive," the statement said.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, called the report a vindication of the party's long-standing complaints about purported police collusion.

On Sunday, party leaders will gather in Dublin, the capital of the Irish Republic, to decide whether to formally support the revamped police, a crucial step in establishing a final power-sharing agreement before a March deadline.

Blair, who will step down this year and has made a settlement in Northern Ireland a hallmark of his premiership, emphasized that the report describes a police force that has since been dramatically changed.

"This is a deeply disturbing report about events which were totally wrong and should never have happened," Blair's spokesman said.

"But this is also a report about the past, and what is important

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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