The publication of a detailed report on the extensive collusion between RUC police and loyalist death squads in south Belfast in the 1990s could mark a turning point in the campaign for truth and justice in the north of Ireland.
The comprehensive and incontrovertible 344-page report by Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson has brought increased demands for those in the Special Branch who conspired in the murders of hundreds of innocent civilians to be tried and convicted.
Long-standing allegations of collusion were confirmed and expanded upon in the probe into the murders and attempted murders carried out by the UDA in south Belfast in the 1990s.
The publication of Operation Achille, together with other recent reports, points to a pattern of British Crown Forces colluding systematically with loyalist murder gangs across the Six Counties.
Last month’s Operation Greenwich, which examined the activities of the North West UDA in the deaths of 17 civilians, produced similar findings. Several other investigations are continuing, including one into the Glenanne gang, which has been linked to over 120 deaths. It is thought the final confirmed death toll from state collusion could approach a thousand innocent victims.
Ms Anderson said that her office had identified eight UDA paramilitaries linked to the murders and attempted murders of 27 people. Shockingly, all eight of them had worked for RUC Special Branch.
From a failure to warn Catholics that their lives were in danger, to handing back a gun later used by loyalists to kill six people, as well as the destruction of files relating to a mass killing, the Operation Achille report also extensively documents the role of the RUC in preparing for and covering up the murders.
In a statement in response to the report, the force, since renamed as the PSNI, said that areas of it made “uncomfortable reading”. It said it offered “sincere apologies” to the families of those killed and injured.
As in her report last month, the Ombudsman’s report confirmed that the UDA members were in the pay of the state while being involved in “serious criminality, including murder”.
When it came to subsequent attempts to investigate the crime, she said the force “turned a blind eye” to their involvement.
Despite the continued use of euphemisms and the shielding of the identities of those involved in the killings, the report shattered the idea that collusion was not deliberate, sustained and widespread.
Over 80 people were murdered by loyalist weapons imported in a major arms shipment from South Africa in 1987. A number of those involved in this importation and distribution were working for the state as agents and informers, the report says.
Among other routine “collusive behaviour” described by Ms Anderson, she highlighted the provision of weapons directly to the UDA; the destruction of evidence and documentation; failures to share information on murder suspects; failures to investigate those involved in importing and distributing weaponry; failures to investigate the provision of state weapons for murder attacks; and failures in carrying out murder investigations, such as testing alibis, conducting forensic investigations, identifying murder suspects, and the protection of the identities of witnesses.
It also confirms the previous allegation that a gun used in the 1992 massacre at Sean Grahams bookmakers on the Ormeau Road, used to kill ten civilians, was simply handed to a known UDA paramilitary boss.
Survivor Mark Sykes, who was shot several times, and whose brother-in-law was killed, said he was immediately shocked by the revelations.
“This is a long report, which will take families days to process and come to terms with,” he said.
Niall Murphy, of KRW Law, said the report provided “yet more irrefutable evidence of the state’s overarching policy of collusion”.
“This report proves that collusion was not a case of a few bad apples, confined to a geographic area,” he said.
“We now know from these and other reports, that collusion was systemic policy, in south Down, north, south and west Belfast, south and north Derry, north Antrim and mid Ulster.
“Different police districts at different times with different informers and killers. However the blueprint remained the same, a blueprint now crystallised and evidenced in this report.”
Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice said there are clear thematic links which point to how RUC Special Branch operated in all of the collusion reports released by the Police Ombudsman to date.
“It is clear that the same weapons used in killings included in this report were also used in other killings – who will now investigate these other killings?
“Who will hold the pensioned former members of the RUC who refused to cooperate in these investigations to account?
“Far from being a full stop, this report marks a comma in these families’ pursuit of truth and justice.”
Last Saturday, a huge crowd gathered for a vigil on the Ormeau Road to remember the atrocity at Sean Graham’s bookmakers, exactly 30 years ago.
For the families of the victims, the report has been a stark and gut-wrenching experience. Billy McManus, whose father Willie was killed in the attack, said that hurt has turned to anger.
“There’s a lot of hurt and a lot of anger to realise how much collusion was involved, not just in Sean Graham Bookmakers, but others who lost loved ones on the Ormeau Road,” he said.
“That evidence that would have convicted these killers was deliberately destroyed is stomach churning and that’s why it’s turning to anger.”
Mr McManus said relatives are aware of the identities of those who took part in the killings at Sean Graham Bookmakers and believes they are included in the group of eight Special Branch agents. He said those responsible are all still alive.
“They are getting on with their lives and we have to still live with what they done to us every day,” he said.
Mr McManus hopes to meet Marie Anderson and Simon Byrne of the PSNI.
“Hopefully if I get a chance to speak to Simon Byrne, the head of the PSNI, to say to him, why after 30 years have these killers still not been prosecuted, and who is protecting them?”