The article below, dealing at some length with the break-in at the Special Branch office at Castlereagh RUC station in March 2002 – on a Sunday evening during the St Patrick’s Day holiday weekend – is from The Guardian’s archive and was written by the paper’s then Ireland correspondent, Rosie Cowan.
The break in and theft of Special Branch documents from Castlereagh has once again hit the headlines following claims last week that the IRA was behind the raid and that decrypted files from the stolen cache have revealed that the RUC allowed one of the worst bombings of the Troubles to go ahead even though an IRA double agent in the unit responsible, had told them of the plan.
Nine people died in the blast, six locals, two children and the IRA bomber, when a bomb, attached to the ceiling of Frizzel’s fishmongers on the Shankill Road in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon shopping day, exploded prematurely.
The IRA believed that the UDA leadership was meeting in rooms above the shop and that their number included the local commander, Johnny Adair, suspected of inciting an increasingly bloody campaign of murder of Belfast Catholics. But, for whatever reason, neither Adair nor his colleagues were there.
The allegation that the authorities in Belfast allowed the bombing to happen, that in effect the British state sanctioned murder, has added controversy to an increasingly ill-tempered debate about how to deal with Northern Ireland’s violent past.
Rosie Cowan’s report, filed a week or so after the event, raises as many questions as it answers, in particular about the allegiance of the thieves. For example, the lone policeman in the Special Branch office, trussed up and tied to a chair, heard ‘snatches of an English accent’ before headphones from a Walkman were slipped over his ears and loud music drowned out further noise.
Did that mean the IRA was not behind the raid, that perhaps disgruntled British security personnel were responsible? Possibly, but then the IRA does have people with English accents in its ranks. I know personally one senior IRA figure from an impeccably Home Counties family, who gave up a promising student career at one of Oxford’s best colleges in the 1970’s to join the IRA. He is still there, as far as I know.
If the operation was, as many believe, organised by the same figure who planned the Northern Bank raid, he would know that few could get through Castlereagh’s security checks easier than an Englishman.
Anyway, here is Rosie Cowan’s fascinating account of the Castlereagh break-in. Enjoy:
How three sharply dressed robbers walked into Belfast’s intelligence hub
Sundays are always quiet at the heavily fortified Castlereagh police barracks, but the St Patrick’s Day bank holiday weekend meant last Sunday was quieter than most.
During the week hundreds of police officers come and go from the complex every day. But as last weekend drew to a close there were only about 20 staff scattered throughout the building.
As Northern Ireland’s main terrorist interrogation centre during the Troubles, the fortress-like Castlereagh complex, in predominantly Protestant east Belfast, struck fear into the hearts of unionists and republicans alike. Times have changed, but the 20ft high metal fence, bristling with razor wire and surveillance equipment still encircles what is now the hub of the city’s policing operation.
Belfast special branch, CID and traffic all have a number of offices in the Ladas Drive premises, although the intelligence unit’s main base is in police headquarters, a couple of miles away at Knock. Army intelligence also has a small room in Castlereagh, known as the “green hut”.
At 10.15pm, a car drew up to the main entrance, a swing barrier manned around the clock. The vehicle’s occupants, three men in smart suits, flashed army identification at the officer on guard and he waved them through.
The men walked into the building, and were again waved on as they showed their ID to the officer on duty. From there, they could move fairly freely, as although many unoccupied offices were locked, the corridors were not.
“These men just strolled in unmasked as if they had every right to be there,” said a police source. “If they were paramilitaries, they were taking a huge risk that someone might have recognised them. We don’t know if the ID was fake, but it was obviously convincing.”
Once past the front desk the trio quickly made their way upstairs to the first floor, and along several corridors to the door of a small, anonymous office, which special branch had moved into temporarily only a week before because of renovations elsewhere in the building.
The special branch operation, known by its former telephone extension number, 220, is the 24-hour nerve centre of Belfast’s intelligence network, where dozens of informers rang in to make contact with police, army and MI5 handlers to pass on details of terrorist activity and the private lives of paramilitaries and politicians. No case files or investigation records are kept permanently in the office, but there are a number of documents in filing cabinets and desks, giving contact numbers and information on current surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations.
There, a lone detective constable was writing up notes as he waited for calls. The only person on the corridor that night, he was not expecting visitors, but when he heard the knock on the unlocked door he got up to open it, assuming it must be another police officer.
Instantly one of the gang punched him once in the face, then a hood was slipped over his head, his mouth taped and he was tied to a chair with rope and tape.
The men did not speak to him but he heard snatches of an English accent before they put a Walkman blaring loud music over his ears. They used keys lying on the desk to unlock drawers and filing cabinets and rifled through these in a systematic fashion for the next 20 minutes. At regular intervals they returned to their captive to check his pulse and ensure he was not bound too tightly.
“Paramilitaries wouldn’t have given a damn about beating him senseless,” a police source said. “Why so careful? It looks like textbook secret agent stuff to me.”
About 10.45pm the officer wriggled free and raised the alarm. The men were gone. So too was his Filofax, a bundle of handwritten notebooks and some other documents containing telephone numbers and coded details of current assignations in Belfast involving intelligence operatives and their sources.
Vehicles do not leave the base by the entrance gate, and there are several different exits, so the trio made their getaway unimpeded. “On the one hand, it was a crude robbery. But it was also incredibly proficient, so slick that detectives suspect it was previously timed and perhaps partly rehearsed,” a source said.
Sources in Belfast were sceptical that there was any paramilitary involvement, but British intelligence sources suspect that the provisional IRA might have had something to do with the theft, one possible motive being to discredit the local special branch.
The burgled office was sealed off and forensic experts moved in immediately. By dawn, the whole complex was a hive of activity, with police photographers and fingertip search teams everywhere.
Every locker, drawer and rubbish bin was pulled apart over the next couple of days in the hope that thieves had stashed the missing papers somewhere, but nothing was found.
Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief constable, was furious. Twelve days before his retirement, and with the ombudsman’s scathing criticism of the Omagh bomb inquiry still ringing in his ears, this was the last thing he needed. Rumours flew but he vehemently denied the thieves had got away with any documents concerning Omagh.
He called together the assistant chief constable, Raymond White, head of the newly amalgamated CID and special branch, Belfast special branch boss Bill Lowry, and Chief Superintendent Phil Wright, the city’s most senior detective, whom he put in charge of the criminal investigation.
As Northern Ireland’s web of informers feared for their lives, the province buzzed with speculation that it was some sort of inside job by disaffected cops or rogue army or MI5 agents.
“Maybe they have a grudge against Sir Ronnie or special branch, or perhaps they want to find something out or cover something up,” a police source said. “They could try and use these documents for blackmail or as some sort of bargaining chip.
“But the information in these papers was replicated elsewhere and they would probably know they would not benefit much from merely destroying them. They are mostly in code, so it would be hard to get full value unless you were very familiar with these things.”
Already people were drawing comparisons with a mysterious fire in 1990, at the offices of John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner investigating alleged collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. One of the targets of such claims, the shadowy army intelligence organisation known as force research unit, was blamed for the blaze, which gutted the locked offices in a police base in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim. Phone wires were cut and fire alarms deactivated before the fire started.
The Stevens team is jittery, but Belfast police insisted that Sunday’s theft was nothing to do with the team’s current inquiry into the 1989 murder of the solicitor Pat Finucane.
John Reid, the Northern Ireland secretary, was stunned by the gravity of the situation and on Tuesday announced that a “distinguished figure” would head an independent inquiry into the break-in and the implications for national security.
On Wednesday, as Sir Ronnie held talks with the policing board in Belfast, Dr Reid revealed that Sir John Chilcot, a former Northern Ireland Office civil servant heavily involved in the Thatcher government’s secret peace talks with the IRA in the early 1990s and now a Whitehall counsellor for disgruntled members of the security services, would lead it.
Meanwhile, Nuala O’Loan, the police ombudsman, decided she could not investigate the Castlereagh incident as some of those involved could be outside her remit, which is confined to alleged wrongdoing by police officers.
“The criminal investigation is in full swing but motive is a big factor and that is still not clear,” a source said. “How will these documents be used? Could they turn up in the public domain?
“Many of Sir John Chilcot’s findings might not be made public and, like so much in Northern Ireland, the whole story might never come out.”