A damning report by the North’s Police Ombudsman on state collusion in the 1993 murder of Damien Walsh shows why the British government wants to “lock the doors of the courts” to those still fighting for justice in unresolved conflict cases, according to lawyers in the case.
Damien, an innocent 17-year-old Catholic was shot dead at a shopping complex in west Belfast in March 1993 by members of the unionist paramilitary UDA.
British soldiers watched from a distance while the UDA murdered the youth trainee worker at the Dairy Farm shopping centre, where IRA activity had been expected.
At the time, a UDA death squad with a history of collusion with British military intelligence was operating against nationalist targets in west Belfast.
The attack took place just weeks after the first contacts were recorded between the Provisional IRA and the British government.
In her report on Wednesday night the North’s police ombudsman Marie Anderson confirmed that the UDA was receiving “targeting information directly from British intelligence”.
She said she found “collusive behaviours” by the then RUC police in relation to the murder of Damien and “significant investigative failures” in the aftermath of the attack.
No one was ever charged or convicted in relation to the killing.
Ms Anderson said her investigation of a complaint from Damien’s mother, Marian, found that the RUC failed to arrest suspects. The RUC made no searches of the suspects’ homes, and failed to ensure that necessary forensic enquiries were undertaken.
The “collusive behaviour” also included withholding important intelligence, including the fact that the complex had been under surveillance.
The ombudsman said that Crown Forces made “a deliberate decision” to disregard intelligence about the threat posed by the Shankill UDA, one of whose leaders was loyalist Johnny Adair, who had been implicated in other collusion killings.
She said that by stopping their surveillance of Adair’s group, the RUC allowed them to operate without the same “levels of constraint” that previously applied.
During that period, the UDA gang also shot dead Sinn Féin member Peter Gallagher as he arrived for work close to the Grosvenor Road in west Belfast.
In the aftermath of the attack which left Damien dead, false information was circulated as to the make and model of the about the killers’ getaway car. Mrs Anderson’s report said this hindered an opportunity to apprehend those responsible.
The cover-up of the fact the complex had been under surveillance by British military personnel who were “eyewitnesses to murder” was a critical element of the collusion, according to Ms Anderson.
“My investigation found no documented reason why the SIO [senior investigating officer] was not told about the surveillance operation. It deprived him of the opportunity to interview security force personnel who witnessed the attack,” she wrote.
“I am of the view that this was a deliberate decision that directly impeded the police investigation and constituted collusive behaviour on the part of police.”
Ms Anderson also was critical of the SIO, who has not been named. She said he was given the names of seven people who were suspected of involvement in the murder, but only three were arrested, and only one of those was questioned.
The Browning pistol used in the killing was recovered in east Belfast in June 1994 and had been previously used by the UDA/UFF, but the person caught with the gun was not subject to forensic tests to determine whether he could be linked to Damien’s murder. The gun was destroyed by the RUC in 1994, which Ms Anderson said “ought not to have occurred”.
Damien’s mother said that “while it was an emotional day it is terribly important for my family to get this report after all these years”.
Marian Walsh’s lawyer Kevin Winters said the report was a “terrible indictment” of the Crown Forces.
“In Damien’s case protecting agents took precedence over trying to find the killers,” he said.
Speaking after the meeting with the Ombudsman, Mr Winters said “it’s little wonder” that the British government “wants to both shut down [the Police Ombudsman] and lock the doors of the courts to families who are still fighting for justice in hundreds of unresolved conflict cases”.
He said “there’s more than coincidence” to last week’s statement by Brandon Lewis on an amnesty for state killings, and the Police Ombudsman’s report.
“The State does not want to have any more days like today when PONI delivers such a devastating critique on State collusion, and it doesn’t want the High Court looking at any more cases like this,” he said.
A generic five-line statement by the PSNI in response only added added weight to the belief that a cover-up is continuing in the Damien Walsh case.
Mrs Walsh said she the report had confirmed her suspicions, but she was pleased that state collusion in the murder of her son had finally been acknowledged.
“All the suspicions I had about what was going on all along, that was confirmed too in the report. Who did it and why they did it and the way the RUC mishandled the situation.”
Ms Walsh said that while she is relieved by the report’s conclusions, the process was tinged with sadness.
“I am relieved too but it’s also really sad because when you are going down to it (Police Ombudsman’s Office) it’s almost as if someone is going to give you Damien back.
“And then you go in and you think, God, this is just to tell me what happened. I’m not getting him back.”