The Police Ombudsman has found evidence of ‘collusive behaviours’ by the RUC before and after the UFF murder of a teenager.
Surveillance on the UFF’s notorious C Company was suspended just three days before 17-year-old Damien Walsh was shot dead at the Dairy Farm complex in West Belfast in 1993, the watchdog says in a report released today.
Marie Anderson also identified ‘significant investigative failures’ in relation to the murder – with leads not followed and crucial information not shared with the senior investigating officer.
The report states that the RUC suspended surveillance of C Company for an eight day period starting three days before Damien’s murder, which allowed the group to operate without the same “levels of constraint”.
The Dairy Farm was, however, under security force surveillance as police believed the IRA was storing fertiliser used in bombs there.
The RUC, Mrs Anderson says, made “a deliberate decision” to disregard intelligence about the threat posed by ‘C Company’ at the time.
No one has been charged or convicted in relation to the attack, in which another man was injured.
Speaking yesterday, Damien’s mother Marian said the findings “confirm our worst fears that there was collusion with loyalists in the killing of Damien”.
She added: “I’m also thinking though of all the hundreds of other families who could end up with no information at all if these plans of the British government come in next year.”
Marian will speak at an event at a plaque erected in memory of Damien at the Dairy Farm on Thursday at 10am.
The Ombudsman said she found no evidence that police were ‘actively involved, had advance knowledge of the attack, or could have stopped the gunmen before the murder’.
However, she said police ‘failed to capitalise on a series of significant investigative opportunities, including failing to arrest suspects, not conducting searches of their homes and failing to ensure that important forensic enquiries were undertaken’.
Mrs Anderson also identified what she calls “collusive police behaviours” such as failing to share intelligence with the senior investigating officer (SIO) leading the police murder investigation, and failing to tell him Dairy Farm had been under security force surveillance.
As well as Damien, ‘C Company’ murdered Peter Gallagher at the Westlink Enterprise Centre the day before and attempted to kill two others while surveillance was suspended. Mrs Anderson said the RUC’s failure during this time to reassess the decision to remove surveillance on the group “constituted collusive behaviour”.
The surveillance operation at the Dairy Farm had been conducted in anticipation of the IRA moving fertiliser intended for use in bombs, the report states. The fertiliser was stored in a unit two doors away from the coal bunker unit in which Damien was working.
Mrs Anderson added: “There was no indication that Damien was specifically targeted. The then Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, stated at the time that Damien was not involved in the paramilitaries and was completely innocent.”
The report also says that in early 1993, the RUC had conducted surveillance on ‘C Company’ and one of its prominent members, Person A, and had used disruption tactics to frustrate their attempts to murder people in West Belfast.
The report adds: “Intelligence suggested that these activities were proving effective. In the month before Damien’s murder, police received intelligence from a number of sources that Person A was being frustrated by increased police activity which was preventing him launching attacks in West Belfast.
“He was reported to have been seen targeting for murder bids in a number of nationalist areas predominantly in West Belfast during February and March 1993, and there was information that members of his team had attempted to murder a nationalist in mid-March.
“Police also received information that he had obtained handguns. He was arrested around this time and questioned. Searches were undertaken, but no guns were found and he was released without charge.
“The surveillance on ‘C Company’ was suspended on 22 March 1993 as police focused their surveillance resources on the Dairy Farm and another operation against PIRA.”
Mrs Anderson added: “I am of the view that police ought to have undertaken a risk assessment and considered resuming the surveillance operation during this period given the developing intelligence picture, the attacks that were taking place, and the risk of further attacks on the nationalist community in West Belfast.
“The failure to do so allowed ‘C Company’ greater scope to mount terrorist attacks on the nationalist community, culminating in the murders of Peter Gallagher and Damien.
“Although the decision to suspend surveillance cannot be directly linked to Damien’s murder, I am of the view that it indirectly contributed to creating an environment whereby ‘C Company’ could operate without the levels of constraint previously placed on them by police.
“I believe that the failure to proactively address the identified threat posed by ‘C Company’ during this period disregarded that threat. In my view this amounted to a deliberate decision that constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police.”
Mrs Anderson pointed out, however, that Damien was not mentioned in any of the intelligence received by police prior to the murder, and said police had no forewarning of the attack.
“It happened with such speed that there was no opportunity for police to stop it,” she said.
Solicitor Kevin winters, who is acting for Damien’s mother, warned that “if the British Government has its way then days like today will be a thing of the past and all the many other conflict-bereaved families who are waiting for information will get nothing”.
He added: “The State wants to shut down PONI and it wants to lock up the courts and deprive families of access to justice precisely because of findings like these contained in the Walsh report. Protecting agents took precedence over trying to find the killers of Damien Walsh.
“Of course this has been replicated in so many other cases. It’s no coincidence why the Government is trying to push through an Amnesty now.”
Mrs Anderson’s report also raised concerns about “significant failures” in the police investigation into Damien’s murder.
She added: “The military personnel who made these reports were eyewitnesses to murder. My investigation found no documented reason why the SIO was not told about the surveillance operation. It deprived him of the opportunity to interview security force personnel who witnessed the attack.
“I am of the view that this was a deliberate decision that directly impeded the police investigation and constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police.”
Similarly, she adds, the SIO was not told about intelligence that an associate of Person A had access to a house in west Belfast where five people were believed to have met in the hours after Damien’s murder, or that members of Person A’s team were suspected of involvement.
The report also found that intelligence indicating that the UDA/UFF had received information from a police officer which informed their attack on the Dairy Farm was also withheld from the SIO, as was intelligence suggesting that the group had received information from “British intelligence”.
“I believe that the failure to share, in a timely manner, these pieces of intelligence with the SIO were deliberate decisions that constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police,” said Mrs Anderson.
“I am of the view that these failures arose from police policies designed to safeguard sources of information.”
Mrs Anderson added that the “targeted nature of the attack, near to a unit being used by PIRA to store fertiliser for the purposes of making explosives, suggested that the gunmen had prior knowledge of PIRA activities at the Dairy Farm”.
The Ombudsman also noted: “There was a fragmented investigative approach by police, which undermined the Damien Walsh murder investigation, and also potentially the investigation into Peter Gallagher’s death.”
She said it is ‘likely’ the murder weapon, a Browning self-loading pistol recovered by police in East Belfast in June 1994, was part of a major importation of weapons by loyalist paramilitaries in 1987.
Mrs Anderson was critical of the weapon’s destruction a year later, although this was undertaken in line with force policy at the time, adding “the disposal of a firearm used in an unsolved murder, in my view, ought not to have occurred”.
She said: “The gun’s destruction removed forever the potential for any further forensic evidence to be recovered from it, which is why I am critical of the destruction of weapons used in unsolved murders.”
Justice for Damien Walsh Committee members at an event a number of years ago
The Ombudsman added: “My predecessor Dr Michael Maguire examined this importation in his report on the 1994 murders of six men at Loughinisland. He found that there was a lack of concerted investigative effort to bring those responsible for the importation to justice.
“Detectives investigating seizures of weapons linked to the importation were not provided with relevant intelligence. I concur with Dr Maguire’s view in the Loughinisland report that the failure to do so directly impeded subsequent police investigations seeking to bring those responsible for the weapons importation to justice.
“I am of the view that the failure to share these pieces of intelligence was a deliberate decision that constituted collusive behaviour on the part of those police officers involved.”
In conclusion, Mrs Anderson said that Damien was “the innocent victim of a campaign of terror mounted by loyalist paramilitaries against the nationalist community”.
She added: “The UDA/UFF alone were responsible for Damien’s murder. However, I have identified investigative failings and gaps as well as collusive behaviours by police which I believe failed both Damien and his family.”
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