by Eamonn McCann (for Counterpunch)
Norman Baxter may find policing in Kabul these days more congenial than policing in Belfast. The former RUC and PSNI Detective Chief Superintendant is one of a number of senior Northern Ireland police officers who have decided that the new, reformed force is not for them, have taken redundancy and signed up with a private firm of “security consultants” with a contract from the Pentagon to help train the new Afghan police force.
Since leaving the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2008, Baxter has spoken and written of his anger and frustration at changes which have seemed to him to belittle the sacrifices of Royal Ulster Constabulary in the long fight against the IRA and at policies brought in under the peace process which he believes now hamper the force in its continuing fight against terrorism. A year and a half ago, Baxter joined New Century, founded and led by Belfast-born Tim Collins, a commander in the Royal Irish Rangers who became a star of the British tabloid press in 2003 for a stirring speech he is said to have delivered to troops in Kuwait on the eve of their advance into Iraq. (The only record comes from an embedded Daily Mail reporter who claims that she took verbatim notes of the desert oration.)
The inclusion in New Century of a contingent of former NI police officers, as well as British soldiers with experience in covert operations in the North, indicates that Collins’ involvement in Iraq and now in Afghanistan hasn’t occluded his interest in affairs back home. Writing in the Daily Mail a few days after the Real IRA gun attack in Co. Antrim in 2009 which left two soldiers dead, he declared: “The emasculation of the old Royal Ulster Constabulary, once the world’s most effective anti-terrorist force, is largely to blame for this shambles…In its new guise as the PSNI, the force is so riddled with political correctness that many good old-fashioned coppers…have simply been sidelined. Nowadays, these old RUC professionals who haven’t been driven out work for MI5 as collators or clerks but take no part in operations. This is a disgrace.”
Collins’ rationale for throwing the doors of New Century open to those in the RUC/PSNI who hankered after the old days and the old ways is easily understandable. He will have anticipated that the techniques and experience which the RUC and British security services developed over 30 years combating the Provos and other paramilitary groups will have equipped them with the special skills needed to mentor Afghans training to fight the Taliban once Nato forces have left.
Baxter, a high-ranking officer who had become chief liaison officer between the police and MI5 in the North, will have been a natural. He has been joined in the upper echelons of New Century by a cluster of colleagues, including Mark Cochrane, former RUC officer in charge of covert training; David Sterritt, a 29-year RUC/PSNI veteran and specialist in recruitment and assessment of agents; Joe Napolitano, 25 years in the RUC/PSNI, retiring as a Detective Inspector running intelligence-led policing operations; Raymond Sheehan, 29 years a Special Branch agent handler; Leslie Woods, 27 years in the RUC/PSNI, with extensive Special Branch handling the selection, assessment and training of officers for covert intelligence-led operations. And many others.
Experience in the North is the single most common factor among recruits to senior positions with New Century.
New Century’s presence in Afghanistan and the involvement of veterans of the Irish conflict briefly surfaced in the mainstream British media last June when a former RUC man working for the company was killed in action in Helmand. Ex-RUC officer Ken McGonigle, 51, a father of four from Derry, died in an exchange of fire with two escaped Taliban prisoners.
Baxter had been a relatively well-known policing figure in the North for some years, regularly interviewed to provide a police view on security matters. His most prominent role had been to head the investigation of the Omagh bombing in August 1998, the most bloody attack of the Troubles. It is widely accepted now that the Omagh investigation was botched to an embarrassing degree – although there is no agreement on where blame lies. Baxter is not alone in believing that political considerations and the protection of security service “assets” North and South were major factors in the failure to bring the case to a conclusion
After leaving the PSNI in 2008, he was able to speak out with less restraint. He took a particular interest in the alleged involvement of senior Sinn Fein figures in IRA activities in the past.
The fact that the policing changes had been specifically designed to coax Sinn Fein into acceptance of the Northern State and thereby into a share of Executive power did nothing to sooth the disgruntlement of police officers resentful of reform. Baxter’s particular animus against Gerry Adams came through in a column in the Belfast Newsletter on March 30 2010, in which he urged the PSNI to launch a new investigation into the Sinn Fein leader’s alleged role in the 1972 abduction and killing of Jean McConville, the mother of 10 whose “disappeared” body was finally located on a beach in Co. Louth in 2003. He appears to have been the first figure of any note – certainly the first with a media presence and extensive police connections – to call publicly for action to subpoena video tapes held by Boston College, Massachusetts, in which two ex-IRA members claim that Adams, as a senior IRA commander in Belfast, had ordered the killing of Mrs. McConville and others of the “disappeared”.
Baxter’s intervention came within 24 hours of the publication on March 29 of “Voices From The Grave”, the book by Ed Maloney based on interviews with senior IRA figure Brendan Hughes and UVF leader and Progressive Unionist Party politician David Ervine. Both men had recently died, allowing Maloney to publish the material: he had given assurances that none of it would be used while they were alive. The same assurance had been given to more than 20 other former paramilitaries, most of them ex-IRA, who had been interviewed by Maloney and his researcher Anthony McIntyre – himself a former IRA prisoner – and the tapes lodged with Boston College.
In the book, Hughes, once a close personal friend and paramilitary comrade of Adams, told that the man who was now an internationally respected figure had orchestrated the abduction and killing of Mrs. McConville.
“Although Brendan Hughes is now dead,” wrote Baxter in the Newsletter, “his evidence, which was recorded, may provide evidence which could lead the police to build a case for criminal proceedings.” His intense personal feelings were evident in his description of a recent appearance by Adams in a Channel 4 religious programme as “sickening” and in a suggestion that Mrs. McConville may have heard herself condemned “from the lips of a demon of death”.
The level of hatred – it is not too strong a word – of Baxter and many of his colleagues at the new status of individuals they had striven to extirpate from Northern Ireland society was unconcealed. “Sinn Fein and the IRA have a record of human rights abuse that would equal some Nazi units in the Second World War, and yet they currently wear the duplicitous clothes of human rights defenders with such ease.”
The pursuit of Adams and others will be seen by Baxter and his colleagues as unfinished business.
Baxter will have been well aware that a taped record of a conversation with a man who had since died is no basis for charging a senior political figure – or anyone – with murder. In the Newsletter, he urged Mrs. McConville’s family to try instead, or as well, to bring civil proceedings – where the standard of proof is less daunting than in a criminal case. Referring to Mrs. McConville’s daughter, he made a public appeal: “Helen McKendry should not be left in isolation to seek justice for her mother through civil proceedings. Civic society and democratic politicians should come together in a campaign to financially and morally support the McConville family.”
His bitter experience heading the Omagh investigation might have put the option of civil proceedings in Baxter’s mind. He had come to believe that shadowy forces had contrived to thwart his efforts.
At Omagh library in February 2006, Sam Kinkaid, the most senior detective in the North, told a meeting of relatives of the victims that MI5 had known months in advance that a bomb attack was planned for either Omagh or Derry, that one of those involved was an Omagh man whose name was known and that the bombers would use a Vauxhall Cavalier. MI5 passed this information to the gardai in the South, he went on – but not to the PSNI in the North. Baxter was seated alongside Kinkaid as he spoke, nodding vigorously. Kinkaid resigned from the PSNI the following morning.
Meanwhile, the Garda Special Branch had been running an informer who supplied information about a series of planned cross-border bomb raids by the Real IRA. Gardai decided to let a number of bombs through so as not to compromise the identity of the informer. Police in the North were not told about this. So there were no special security measures in place in or around Omagh when the bomb in a Vauxhall Cavalier was parked in Market Street on August 15, 1998.
Even after the explosion, with 29 people dead, none of this information was passed to Baxter’s investigation either.
The only person eventually charged with the Omagh atrocity was Sean Hoey, an electrician from south Armagh. He was acquitted in November 2009. The trial judge, Mr. Justice Weir, then launched a scathing attack on the investigation, accusing the police of “a slapdash approach” and condemning two named officers for “reprehensible” behaviour.
Remarkably, however, none of the relatives of the victims interviewed afterwards blamed Baxter or the men under him. Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James had perished in the blast, placed the blame much higher: “It is the appalling inefficiency of (Chief Constable) Sir Ronnie Flanagan that has meant that Chief Superintendant Baxter has not been able to secure a conviction”.
Many of the families were at one with Baxter in believing that the investigation had systematically been stymied by senior figures in policing and politics who had reason to be nervous about the full facts emerging and whose political agenda may have taken precedence over the safety of citizens and the pursuit of the perpetrators.
A number of families took Baxter’s advice and initiated a civil case for compensation against four men they believed had been involved in the bombing. In 2009, the four were found to have been responsible. Two were cleared on appeal. But the families were able to express some frugal satisfaction that at least they’d seen somebody held publicly accountable for the devastation which had befallen them.
It is hardly fanciful to trace Baxter’s loud advocacy of civil proceedings against Adams back to the Omagh experience which had confirmed his belief that “the world’s most effective anti-terrorist force” had been prevented from winning its war against the IRA by the machinations of people with no stomach for the fight. Getting Adams now, whether by civil or criminal proceedings, was a part of getting even.
It was against this background that the British authorities launched legal action to recover the Boston tapes. The suggestion came from the Historical Enquiries Team, established in 2006 to re-examine more than 3,000 unsolved cases of Troubles-related murder. The 100-strong team included Mike Wilkins, head of the Special Branch in Warwickshire in England until seconded to the HET in 2006. He had become HET chief investigations officer by the time he left in September 2010 – to join Baxter as training coordinator for the Afghan project. This was six months after Baxter’s call in the Newsletter for a new police investigation into the McConville case. The interconnections between these events have, inevitably, provided fodder for fevered speculation in Republican circles and on blogs and websites over recent months.
To the dismay of Maloney and McIntyre, Boston College decided not to contest a lower-court order to hand the tapes over. The archive is now in the custody of the court while Maloney and McIntyre continue legal action to try to prevent the material being passed on to the PSNI. It is a matter of speculation what the implication will be for Adams and others who have left paramilitarism behind if the tapes are handed over.
As he looks back on more than 30 frustrating years policing in the North, even as he assumes his new and more wide-ranging – and enormously more lucrative, one imagines - role in the global war on terror, Baxter may take grim satisfaction from the fact that he has some of his old enemies still in his sights. He may be cheered, too, by the thought that he won’t be confronted by the same defeatist attitudes and dark maneuvers in the freewheeling fight in Afghanistan as he faced in the constrained circumstances of Northern Ireland, that this time the good guys will get to win. Of course, he could be wrong about that.