A report by the Police Ombudsman concludes that RUC/PSNI Special Branch police officers colluded in at least 18 murders in the North of Ireland between 1990 and 2003 has been described as ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

The report has found evidence that senior police colluded with - and protected from prosecution - sectarian serial killers.

It has also emerged that a number of those implicated in the report in the 1990s are still working in the PSNI at high levels. They will not be prosecuted or removed from their posts because vital evidence has either “gone missing” or been destroyed.

The Ombudsman’s report was initially launched to investigate the murder of 22-year-old Protestant man, Raymond McCord Jr, in north Belfast in 1997, but was expanded to cover the activities of the same UVF gang in more than a dozen other murders.

The report will say that those who ordered and carried out McCord’s murder and 17 others were Special Branch agents, headed by double agent Mark Haddock.

The new head of Haddock’s former UVF unit is understood to be the man who puled the trigger on McCord and is understood to be still working for the PSNI.

The Ombudsman’s report comes just a week before Sinn Féin holds its extraordinary ard fheis to decide whether to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

For nationalists and republicans, the report provides unusual official confirmation that the RUC/PSNI operated as the legal arm of unionist paramilitary death squads, providing help and assistance to the UDA and UVF on an almost daily basis.

The report revealed a force that remains more concerned with protecting its informers and agents than the public, and that effectively ran the UVF in north Belfast, an area with the highest level of sectarian murders during the conflict.

Among other incidents that the same UVF unit is believed to have been involved in is the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, which claimed the lives of six men.

The UVF gang that carried out the murders was run almost from top to bottom by the RUC Special Branch.

Apart from Mark Haddock -- its ‘military commander’ -- who ordered McCord’s murder and many others, its ‘quartermaster’, ‘brigadier’, and a number of specialised hitmen were also working for the RUC/PSNI Special Branch.

Mrs O’Loan’s 160-page report does not identify any agent or police officer by name, but it is understood Haddock is identified as ‘Informant One’. That one PSNI/RUC agent could be behind as many as 18 murders has shocked the nationalist community.

For many republicans it is further proof that British rule was only defended in the North of Ireland through sectarian murder.

But the finding that collusion has continued years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed increases concern over the continuing presence of British forces in the north of Ireland.

When McCord was murdered on November 9, 1997, it was just another grim statistic in the North, a murder destined to be attributed to internal UVF feuding and forgotten soon afterwards. In large part, it was the campaigning work of his father, Raymond McCord Sr, which led to the Ombudsman’s investigation.

Viewed as a crank and a troublemaker, his claim that his son’s murder was ordered and carried out by Special Branch agents was dismissed by the mainstream media.

Another of the UVF gang’s victims was Sharon McKenna, a 27-year-old Catholic woman, murdered in north Belfast on January 17, 1993. She was visiting an elderly Protestant man when the gang struck.

After the murder, two of her killers went to their police handlers and told them what had taken place.

‘‘They were told to stop worrying so much and go out and get a few pints,” said one former senior detective who knew how the murder had taken place.

“The two of them were given a few quid by the Branch men and told to relax, that was how Special Branch treated the murder of an innocent young woman killed by their informers.”

SDLP leader Mark Durkan said questions had to be asked about the scale and duration of the cover-up.

“We had an RUC informer who was allowed to murder again and again and again - Catholics, Protestants, paramilitaries, civilians, even a minister of religion,” he said.

“It absolutely stinks. But we also have to ask why are we only getting to this now.

“We are only getting to this now because some us insisted on the police ombudsman having the powers to investigate these things and investigate the past.”

Mrs O’Loan met victims’ families at a south Belfast hotel last night to tell them that there was not enough proof to prosecute any police officers because of “gaps in the chain of evidence”.

It is believed some key evidence disappeared during the so-called “break-in” at Special Branch headquarters in 2002.

The family of Raymond McCord jnr has called for a fully independent inquiry into collusion.

Raymond McCord snr, whose son’s case was the motivator behind the Police Ombudsman’s investigation, said he would continue the family’s fight to get justice.

“This report is not the end of our struggle to get justice for young Raymond,” he said. “It is the means by which we can go forward to get justice and uncover the truth so that these horrible deeds will never be allowed to happen again.”

McCord called on Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams not to endorse the PSNI in light of the report’s findings. Mr McCord said he met Mr Adams last week and had a “good meeting”.

“This [Nuala O’Loan’s report] shows the police have not changed,” he said.

Mr Adams said Ms O’Loan’s report confirms what the families of the “hundreds bereaved by collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads have been saying for years”.

He said this report was only the tip of the iceberg as it had only dealt with the impact of collusion in a “relatively small area and over a relatively short period of time”.

“It is clear from the seniority of those involved within the old RUC who were involved in this investigation that collusion was a matter of political and administrative practice which existed at all levels of the RUC and British government,” he said.

“Clearly some of those involved in collusion are still in policing. Sinn Féin is determined to drum these human rights abusers out of policing and we are committed to supporting bereaved relatives in their ongoing search for truth.”

The 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern today described the report as “deeply disturbing” and said its findings “are of the utmost gravity”.

“Over many years, successive Irish governments, and many others, raised serious concerns about collusion in Northern Ireland. This report demonstrates that these concerns were well-founded. It presents clear evidence that the RUC colluded with loyalist murderers and failed in their duty to prevent many horrific crimes,” he said.

Mr Ahern praised Raymond McCord’s determination to find the truth about his son’s, Raymond Junior, murder in the 1990s.

“I applaud his single-minded determination and courage which helped ensure that the truth would be told and these grievous failures brought to light in a comprehensive and detailed way,” said the Taoiseach.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News