The Spying Game

In a dramatic development, the central charges used to substantiate allegations of a so-called `Stormont spy-ring' were dropped - without any explanation whatsoever - at Belfast Magistrates' Court. And the sitting Magistrate Des Perry heard that the power-sharing Assembly was collapsed by Special Branch in October 2002 through an ``act of political subversion''.

The statement was made by local man Ciaran Kearney as he answered two charges of possessing information that could be useful to terrorists.

Mr Kearney appeared in the dock alongside Denis Donaldson and William Mackessy, both of whom were charged with similar offences.

All three accused - along with local woman Fiona Farrelly - had been arrested and detained following high-profile raids at their homes and at Sinn Fein's offices in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, on October 4, 2002.

All charges against Ms Farrelly were dropped without explanation by the Department of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) on December 17 last year. Last Thursday's court hearing confirmed that just seven outstanding charges - out of the 14 originally levelled - are now being pursued by the Crown.

These charges include allegations of possessing information on persons or property relating to serving or former military and loyalist figures, as well as a retired judge.

Crucially, the central charges which had been used to substantiate allegations of a so-called `Stormont spy-ring' have simply been dropped without any explanation by the DPP.

And no-one is now charged with possessing personal information about 1,400 prison officers.

The unfounded allegation that this information was discovered in the possession of the IRA has been used by the Prison Officers' Association as a bargaining tool in a bid to secure extra so-called `protection money' from the Northern Ireland Office.

Responding to the charges, Denis Donaldson and William Mackessy replied that they had nothing to say.

Ciaran Kearney, however, made a statement in which he blamed Special Branch for the collapse of the Assembly.

``I assert my innocence,'' said Mr Kearney.

``I will vigorously defend myself against these allegations. ``Many of the charges put to me one-and-a-half years ago by Special Branch have now been withdrawn.

``Most of all, the allegation that I possessed documents of a secret, confidential and restricted nature originating from the Northern Ireland Office has been withdrawn without explanation.

``Consequently, the Special Branch fantasy of a Stormont `spy-ring' is finally disproven.

``The clock cannot be turned back. My family has been victimised and the political process has been damaged.

``Special Branch carry the blame for that. ``Special Branch collapsed the power-sharing Executive and have endangered the Good Friday Agreement.

``They have not yet been made accountable for that act of political subversion,'' said Mr Kearney.

Solicitor Andrew Russell of Madden and Finucane Solicitors - acting for Mr Donaldson and Mr Mackessy - told the court that his clients will both ``be pleading not guilty''.

He said Mr Donaldson and Mr Mackessy ``contend they have not been afforded due process of law''.

Mr Russell noted that the Preliminary Enquiry papers against the accused do not contain any information relating to Operation Torsion - the secret Special Branch operation which preceded the arrests in October 2002.

Mr Russell told the court that details about Operation Torsion have featured heavily in a book by the BBC's Security Editor Brian Rowan.

There will now be separate proceedings regarding this matter, said Mr Russell.

With nationalists now referring to the case as `Bogusgate' - rather than the discredited media tag `Stormontgate' - the three accused were released on continuing bail and returned for trial to the Crown Court, on a date yet to be set.

An official observer from the Irish government's Department of Foreign Affairs was present in court throughout Thursday's proceedings.

What is Operation Torsion?

The only detailed account of Operation Torsion is contained in a book by the BBC's Security Editor Brian Rowan.

On December 17 last year, leading Belfast solicitor Peter Madden - acting for Denis Donaldson and William Mackessy - indicated that there is now a likelihood of Mr Rowan being called to testify at future proceedings over this account.

Although he first exposed the existence of Operation Torsion in BBC news reports on November 12, 2002, Mr Rowan printed a much more detailed version in his book, `An Armed Peace', which was published last September.

According to Brian Rowan, the raids on October 4, 2002, took place only after Special Branch tapped phones, installed listening and tracking devices, engaged in widespread surveillance, relied upon the role of an agent, covertly broke into unidentified private premises, and even handled, removed and replaced evidence - supposedly central to the prosecutions.

But with half the original charges now dropped against the accused and with the allegation of a so-called `Stormont spy-ring' in tatters, the information revealed by Brian Rowan about Special Branch's activities has assumed great significance for ongoing legal proceedings. His version of Operation Torsion suggests that a plan was hatched by Special Branch after the Castlereagh burglary on St Patrick's Day, 2002.

This incident happened exactly two weeks before Ronnie Flanagan - former Head of Special Branch - retired from his role as Chief Constable of the RUC. Flanagan immediately appointed Chief Superintendent Phil Wright (a professional protege of former Special Branch No 2, Chief Superintendent Derek Martindale) as Senior Investigating Officer into the Castlereagh burglary.

Within days the so-called ``security assessment'' changed from focussing on the highly embarrassing `inside job' theory, to focussing on blaming the IRA's alleged `Director of Intelligence'.

Rowan refers to this figure as a ``West Belfast man with a big republican reputation''. After this person was arrested amid massive media leaks, along with five others on March 30, 2002 - in what republicans called a `propaganda exercise' and a `fishing expedition' - the PSNI released him without charge. Rowan states that Operation Torsion was then conceived and managed by Belfast Special Branch Head, Chief Superintendent Billy Lowry, who allowed it to ``breathe'' in the hope that ``the IRA director of intelligence ... would walk into his surveillance net''.

Mr Rowan has alleged that key decisions in terms of their timing and actions during the course of Operation Torsion were political.

Many others have characterised the widespread and co-ordinated media leaks emanating from within Special Branch as equally political.

``Seven months before the public revelations of alleged IRA intelligence-gathering inside Castle Buildings, the Special Branch had been embarrassed by all that had happened inside Castlereagh.

``But Operation Torsion had allowed Lowry an opportunity to return the serve on the IRA and he did so, he claims, against the wishes of the British security services,'' wrote Brian Rowan last September.

With confirmation last week that charges of ``possessing documents of a secret, confidential or restricted nature originating from government offices'' have now been dropped without explanation, the focus of nationalists and republicans is turning to an examination of the timing, motivation and methods associated with Operation Torsion.

The light is once again being shone in the dark corners of Special Branch, and this time, it appears, the `force within a force' has only itself to blame.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News