The British army and MI5 military intelligence shredded files on collusion returned by the Stevens Inquiry, it has been confirmed.
The two agencies - which ran agents in both the IRA and unionist paramilitary groups groups - are now demanding the return of more documents.
They are reported to be applying pressure on the long-running inquiry by the former London police chief to hand back more secret files by next month.
Sources in the Stevens Inquiry told the Belfast Telegraph that the agencies are demanding the return of files compiled during the three investigations Lord Stevens has undertaken into collusion.
If a stand-off develops, MI5 could turn to Northern Secretary Peter Hain to invoke secrecy clauses under the Inquiries Act. Under the controversial new legislation, Mr Hain has the power to restrict evidence from being made public by the inquiry.
Stevens’ detectives uncovered evidence of collusion between members of the British Crown forces and the unionist paramilitary UDA, including the role of a MI5 agent Brian Nelson in the murder of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane.
The row comes at a key time for MI5. The agency is due to take over responsibility for Britain’s anti-republican operations in the North of Ireland later this year.
A JOB OF WERC
Meanwhile, a legal challenge is being prepared against the PSNI police over its refusal to explain why a secret police intelligence unit was allowed unrestricted access to forensic evidence ahead of the trial of Armagh republican Sean Hoey.
Little or nothing is known about the activities of a shadowy Crown force unit known as the Weapons & Explosives Research Centre (WERC).
During Hoey’s trial last year scientist Ruth Griffin admitted that trial evidence had been contaminated after WERC officers were allowed to remove it from the headquarters of forensic science service at Carrickfergus for “training purposes”.
Mrs Griffin revealed that WERC was given access to all forensic evidence held at the laboratory, including evidence intended for use in future trials.
Mr Hoey’s lawyer Kevin Winters says he is initiating legal proceedings against the PSNI after it refused to disclose even basic information about the secret unit’s activities, judging that it was “not in the public interest’’.
Mr Winter has received impenetrable and absurd correspondence from the PSNI, apparently stating that they cannot reveal whether information on the activities of the WERC is classified, as this information is classified.
Mr Winters says he will now take legal action against the chief constable to force him to reveal the activities of the shadowy unit.
“It is totally unacceptable that these faceless individuals are allowed to go into forensic science headquarters and handle evidence without any accountability,” he said.
“It has already been proved that they contaminated evidence in at least one case.
“It drives a coach and horses through a defendant’s entitlement to a fair trial,” he added.