In a dramatic vindication for the grieving families, the High Court in Belfast has accepted that the PSNI wrecked an investigation into collusion by Britain in the notorious Glenanne Gang, which was responsible for killing 130 Catholics.
The paramilitary unit included members of the British Army and RUC police (now PSNI) unit and carried out killings throughout the 1970s mainly in Mid-Ulster, but whose reach stretched as far as Dublin and Monaghan.
Justice Seamus Treacy delivered his judgement on a judicial review taken by the brother of 13-year-old Patrick Barnard, who was killed in the bombing of the Hillcrest Bar in Dungannon in 1976.
The Glenanne gang was associated with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) but counted Crown force personnel among its members. Operating mostly in Tyrone and Armagh, the gang has been blamed for around 130 sectarian murders during the 1970s and 1980s.
The failure of the PSNI to conduct a full examination of state involvement in the death squad was inconsistent with its human rights obligations, the judge found.
The Historic Enquiries Team (HET), a external police unit, had partially completed a probe into the activities of the Glenanne Gang before its work was halted by local PSNI commanders. The PSNI’s decision to stop the HET review was challenged through a judicial review by the Barnard family.
Delivering judgment at Belfast High Court, Treacy found that changes made by the PSNI to how it investigated historic cases were fundamentally inconsistent with its obligations in the European Convention on Human Rights.
He questioned the state’s commitment to investigating cases that involved suspected collusion. He was particularly critical of the apparent cover-up on the Glenanne gang by former PSNI chief Matt Baggott. The judge said the Barnard family had a “legitimate expectation” that a thematic probe into collusion would have been completed. He said the treatment of them had been “unfair” in the “extreme”.
“It has completely undermined the confidence of the families whose concerns are not only still unresolved but compounded by the effects of the decisions taken by the then chief constable (Mr Baggott),” he said.
“There is a real risk that this will fuel in the minds of the families the fear that the state has resiled from its public commitments because it is not genuinely committed to addressing the unresolved concerns that the families have of state involvement.”
The court was packed with relatives who lost loved ones at the hands of the murderous gang. Outside, some wept and others applauded as they reflected on the judgment.
Patrick Barnard’s brother, Edward, who took the judicial review, said he had not expected the outcome.
“I am shocked. I did not think we would get the victory today that we have got,” he said.
“We have proved collusion, we have proved that the police halted the report, they stopped the HET from fulfilling their part.”
Eugene Reavey, whose three brothers were murdered by the gang in 1976, described the killings perpetrated by the gang as a war crime.
“The judge repeated collusion, collusion, collusion all day,” he said.
“This was a war crime - there were 135 people dead. This was murder by the state and its agents. There is no other word for it than a war crime - that’s how big it is.
“I am delighted for everybody here for the perseverance they have shown over the years. We have been humiliated, we have been abused by everybody in every part of the journey but today we have been vindicated.”
Darragh Mackin, representing Mr Barnard, said the families had been through an “excruciating” process.
“This has been a long and turbulent journey for these families,” he said.
“Not only has the court today ruled that there is credible evidence (of collusion) throughout the Glenanne series but the procedure and torment that these families have had to go through has been extremely unfair and there has been an abuse of power by the powers-that-be.”
The HET was originally set up in 2006 to fulfil the state’s obligations under Article 2 of the ECHR to ensure legacy investigations were independent and effective. But the unit was fatally undermined when Baggott introduced changes that gave the PSNI more control in historic cases.
Judge Treacy said this began a process of “dismantling” the investigation. He said the British decision to fully axe the HET in 2014 further undermined the state’s undertakings under Article 2.
The failure to complete the Glenanne collusion report meant potential evidential opportunities had been missed, he added.
“This decision frustrates any possibility of an effective investigation which would fulfil the Article 2 duty which now arises and has foreclosed any possibility that the Article 2 duty will be fulfilled.”
Mike Ritchie, Senior Advocacy Director for Relaties for Justice, described the judgement as “devastating”. He called for the resignation of Drew Harris, Deputy Chief of the PSNI, who he said had subverted a decade of British state assurances that Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights would be respected.
“Drew Harris is the man at the head of PSNI legacy affairs; it is surely time for him to resign,” he said.
“He is a reminder of the political policing of the past and the contamination of current policing by the cover up of the past. His role in this case is the last straw.”