One reason why the RUC should be disbanded
BY LAURA FRIEL
Bernard Griffin is not the first nationalist teenager to be beaten by the RUC and then to face false charges. He is not the first to be held on remand on the basis of trumped up charges. He is not even the first to file a complaint against the RUC for assault. But he is the first to succeed in securing a conviction
This is one man's story. But all the elements are there. Arbitrary arrest, sectarian abuse, brutality, death threats, trumped up charges, fabricated evidence, false imprisonment and collusion.
Bernard Griffin, a Catholic teenager from North Belfast, is the man, and his story began in the early hours of a chilly February day in 1998. Bernard had just left Ardoyne's GAA club and was queuing at a chip van when he was approached by an RUC patrol.
Outside a GAA club and in the nationalist area of Ardoyne, the patrol would have been in no doubt of Bernard's Catholic identity. The fact that he was wearing a Celtic football shirt only confirmed what was already obvious, but to the RUC it was like a red rag to a bull. Bernard was told that he was under arrest. The RUC later claimed he had been throwing bottles.
The drive from Ardoyne to Antrim Road RUC barracks is relatively short, but in the back of the RUC Land Rover, Bernard could hardly wait for the journey to end. ``Take off that top, you fenian bastard,'' one of the patrol had said. There were three RUC officers, two in the front, one at the back, accompanied by a British soldier.
Bernard was repeatedly beaten with a baton, across his back and head, on his legs and in the mouth. At one point, an RUC officer brought his face close to Bernard and said: ``I'm going to get the LVF to shoot you.'' He then threatened to ``drop'' Bernard off in the Shankill.
At Antrim Road barracks, Bernard arrived dazed and covered in blood. He was charged with disorderly behaviour but the RUC patrol had made a mistake. After Bernard was seen by an RUC doctor, the patrol realised they should have accused Bernard of assault to counteract any possible complaint.
But they weren't very worried; after all, nationalist youths are beaten and brutalised by the RUC and other crown force personnel all the time and nothing very much comes of it. Just to be on the safe side, the RUC patrol concocted a cover story.
In a scenario reminiscent of the case against British paratroopers involved in the killing of nationalist teenager Karen Reilly, one RUC officer allowed a second member of the patrol to inflict injuries upon him to support the claim that the patrol had been assaulted by their prisoner.
If they all stuck to the same story, there wasn't a court in the North that was going to take the word of a nationalist teenager against that of the RUC, and they knew it. But, inexplicably, it all went wrong.
As for Bernard, he didn't register a complaint immediately. Nothing that had happening to him during his young life had given him any reason to expect justice from a system of which RUC brutality was just another aspect. But a week after the attack Bernard and a friend were stopped by two RUC officers travelling in a Land Rover.
One RUC officer made an admission that enabled Bernard to identify him as one of the assailants. He noted down the RUC man's identification number and made a formal complaint. What followed is an even greater indictment of the RUC than even the initial sectarian assault.
One member of the patrol suddenly got cold feet and admitted the truth. He was a new recruit and spoke with an English accent; perhaps he was something of an outsider, not fully integrated into the way in which the RUC traditionally do business.
The patrol was now facing a number of serious charges, including assault of a prisoner and attempting to pervert the course of justice. But all was not lost. Perhaps Bernard could be induced to drop the complaint.
When Bernard was first arrested, one member of the patrol had threatened him with the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). Two months later, a grenade was left on the windowsill of the Griffin family's home. The device failed to explode. The attack was later claimed by the LVF. To Bernard, the connection and the message were clear.
d it wouldn't be the first time that RUC officers facing prosecution have successfully intimidated their way out of trouble. In the early 1990s, a young nationalist mother, Geraldine Skillen, accused an RUC patrol of sexual assault. She was subjected to persistent RUC harassment, including threats to take her children into care, until the charges were dropped.
Six months later and the tactic changed. In September 1999, the RUC raided the house in which Bernard was staying in the Whitewell area of North Belfast. The home was that of Bernard's aunt. The raiding party said they were looking for weapons.
``I knew there was nothing there, but they claimed they had found a bomb, a gun and ammunition in the attic,'' said Bernard. He was arrested and held in Castlereagh interrogation centre for two days before being charged with possession.
From Castlereagh, Bernard was taken to Hydebank young offenders' centre, where he was imprisoned for three months. Inexplicably, the charges were suddenly dropped. It was just before Christmas and Bernard was released. Charges arising out of the initial arrest were also dropped when they came to court.
At the time of his arrest and throughout his detention, Bernard had never been shown any evidence against him. His solicitor did not receive details of any forensic evidence regarding the so-called explosives ``find''.
In February of this year, the case against the RUC patrol opened in Belfast Crown Court. RUC officer Andrew Lea pleaded guilty but the other three were still prepared to deny the truth. A day into the trial, British Army Lance Corporal Matthew Butcher threw in the towel and changed his plea to guilty. With conviction now unavoidable, RUC officers Michael Magowan and Darren Neill admitted their guilt.
Last week, presiding Judge McLaughlin sentenced the four men. The judge acknowledged that the RUC patrol's attempt to frame Bernard with a false charge of assault was even more serious that the initial assault. But the punishment handed out failed to reflect this.
Neill was jailed for two years, Magowan for one. Butcher and Lea got off with a £1,000 fine each. This is the first time members of the RUC have been jailed for offences carried out while they were on duty.
d now the questions are being asked. Last week, British Labour MP Kevin McNamara tabled a series of questions in the British House of Commons demanding information on every case in which evidence from the offending RUC officers helped secure convictions.
The Labour MP has also asked the British Attorney General to explain why the charges of possession brought against Bernard Griffin while he was pursuing his case against the RUC were dropped.
Bernard Griffin is not the first nationalist teenager to be beaten by the RUC and then to face false charges of assault or obstruction. Hundreds of nationalists have faced the same ordeal.
He is not the first nationalist to be held on remand on the basis of trumped up charges. Bernard is not even the first nationalist to file a complaint against the RUC for assault. But he is the first to succeed in securing a conviction.
This is one young man's story, but his account of the RUC's abuse of power, their sectarian agenda and corruption, is consistent with many nationalists' experience of the force.
This is one particular case, but it illustrates a truth universally acknowledged within Northern nationalist communities. The RUC is a totally discredited force and should be disbanded.