N. Ireland police accused of cover-ups

Probe finds officers protected informants who committed murders and other crimes

January 23, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- In what the Irish prime minister called a disturbing report that "paints a picture of despicable past behavior," an ombudsman's investigation released yesterday found evidence that Northern Ireland police looked the other way or actively covered up at least 10 murders 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 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, acknowledged 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 he 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," Hain 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, murders and drug operations since the 1960s. Its unit scrutinized in the report operated in North Belfast and Newtownabbey from 1991 to 2003.

The inquiry was launched on the 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 said.

Investigators found "there was intelligence strongly indicating the involvement of [UVF] informants" in at least 10 murders, 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.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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