The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Political Policing

An Interview in 3 parts

Part One: Forbidden Fruit
Part Two: Out From the Shadows
Part Three:
Political Policing

Anthony McIntyre • 11 July 2004

Few deal in secrets more than RUC Special Branch. It intrigued me then to know what someone from that stable felt of the Ed Moloney book, A Secret History of The IRA. Sinn Fein hated it and tried ignoring it. They could do little as they watched it soar up the bestselling list, where it remains well above Gerry Adams second book on not being a member of the IRA, despite the latter being released a year after Moloney’s. In what way would Bill Lowry’s view differ from Sinn Fein’s?

‘It is a very persuasive read. Ed Moloney had great insight.' But did the book’s 600 pages provide him with something radically different from what he already knew? 'It confirmed what I believed.'

Moloney's central thesis is that an end to the armed campaign in exchange for an internal solution was being clandestinely explored by the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams from the 1980s, for the most part behind the backs of his colleagues. Martin Ingram of FRU went someway towards endorsing Moloney’s account with his RTE revelation that he was aware of a secret peace process by the time he had returned to the North for a second tour of duty in the late 1980s. Was Special Branch aware of this?

Revealingly, Bill Lowry said that as far back as 1988, a full six years before he joined Special Branch, he realised changes were in the air. The war was no longer being prosecuted with the same vigour. 'It was clear then that the movement was going to wind up the armed campaign.’ Signals from the British Government left him in no doubt that things were on the move.

And of the role of Gerry Adams as outlined by Moloney? 'It is very much a reliable account.'

The former Special Branch chief conceded that people had to admire the ability of Adams in pulling it all off. ‘He knew it was going nowhere and did the right thing in bringing it to a end.’ It seemed an opportune time to ask if he supported the peace process. He didn’t surprise me with his affirmative response. Why wouldn’t he – didn’t it secure British rule into perpetuity? He was often bemused to hear Sinn Fein spokespeople indirectly refer to him as a ‘securocrat.’

What did he take the term to mean?

Nothing but a figment of Sinn Fein’s imagination. They use it cover for the lack of progress they have made or when the terrorists do something that goes wrong and causes Sinn Fein embarrassment.

He further argued that the IRA was fortunate to have embraced the peace process and call it quits when it did. 'They got more gains from doing it then than they would have had they been forced to close it down after 9/11, even if they were able to have gone at it full throttle.’

How did he account for newspaper reports that the British Government and Unionists were caught unawares by the 1994 ceasefire? He couldn't see how they were. There was more than enough evidence that it was in the air although there may have been a lack of certainty about the exact date of its enactment or the nature of its conditions.

The ceasefire of 1997 was more significant. After they ended the first ceasefire with Canary Wharf the leadership went back to war with no real intention of fighting it. They didn’t want the campaign to succeed. It was to let the army carry on until they seen for themselves how futile it was.

All of which made me wonder to just what lengths elements within leadership were prepared to venture in order to ensure the campaign did not take off and that it would be reduced to what one senior RUC figure at the time described as a 'pathetic grubby little war.' But, if I was thinking the man facing me might enlighten us on that I was wasting my time. Secrets of State would not, unfortunately, be featuring on the pages of the Blanket.

So where now for Special Branch and its activities? Sinn Fein claims the old RUC Special Branch is moving en masse to senior management and mainstream leadership positions within the PSNI, in order to mitigate the effects of restructuring. Tom Constantine, the Commissioner tasked with overseeing the implementation of Patten, in criticising the pace of change focussed on Special Branch.

Whatever the Provos say, the fact is that the PSNI will only become acceptable when the Provos say they are to be accepted. They will do it when ready, regardless of what they say about Special Branch. When they eventually get some of their local boys on the policing partnership boards, they will go for it. They need to give them something in return for the terrorism they were engaged in.

He made the point that all the Assistant Chief Constables are former RUC. Did this use of the term ‘former’ mean the force had been disbanded? He thought ‘being changed’ was a more appropriate term. And the type of change? Towards what was always available. For him, ultimately, republicans made the style of policing pursued by the RUC necessary. He feels this is borne out by the way that policing methods have greatly relaxed now that the IRA campaign has stopped.

As for Special Branch resisting change he contended that the fundamental review of policing conducted by Ronnie Flanagan was in essence Patten.

Sinn Fein rejected Patten when it came out and are now demanding that it be implemented in full. Constantine was correct about the pace of change being too slow. But it is not because of resistance. You have to remember that 98% of Patten won Special Branch approval.

Special Branch is now known as C3 and is divided between operational and intelligence functions. But there is room to suspect that REMIT is the Special Branch reinvented and allegations persist that Bill Lowry was central to the thinking behind the development of REMIT. I referred him to a pretty comprehensive article by Jarlath Kearney in the Andersonstown News on these concerns.

‘REMIT is a body that checks on the efficiency of investigations. It has nowhere near the powers or role that is suggested in the Andersonstown News article you mentioned.'

Always composed and relaxed, Bill Lowry showed no animosity towards those he talked about, regardless of what side they took during the conflict. What may come as a surprise is that he displayed a high regard for the capability of some Sinn Fein politicians and was distinctly unimpressed by the behaviour of some unionists. And there were signs of past irritation with former Secretary Of State, Mo Mowlam. This came across in the context of his defence of Special Branch against my suggestion that there was clear evidence of the primacy of political policing over civil. According to the Walker Report arrests could not take place without the approval of Special Branch. Quite clearly this was political interference in the arrest procedure. He disputed this, saying that input rather than control was the sum of Special Branch influence. He then went on to argue that politicians had a case to answer when it came to interfering in policing matters.

When the Provos killed Dougan during the talks Mo Mowlam did not want to hear tell of it. She did not want to act on our reports. On another occasion word was passed down that Rita O’Hare would be travelling from Dublin to Belfast for a funeral and that she was not to be arrested. We insisted that it was a policing matter and that if there was a warrant out for her arrest she would be arrested. But our intelligence led us to believe that Mo Mowlam had either stayed with Rita O’Hare while she was in the Republic or socialised with her. So you can see where that leads. Police business if it is to be non-political has to be free from such constraints. That is clear evidence of interference in policing work and yet Special Branch is blamed and the government gets away with it.

On the subject of policing being driven by a political agenda, it is frequently said of the current chief constable, Hugh Orde, that he is a new brush and is not tainted by politics in the manner of some of his predecessors. But it seemed to me that Orde couldn’t avoid being political. In the way that Jack Hermon personified the politically driven war cop, Hugh Orde is the equally politically driven peace process cop. His role and approach is what is needed at this juncture. It is simply a continuation of the way in which the British state politically polices the North.

That is the way to see it. Hugh Orde will do what is necessary to see that the political policy of the government succeeds. It is what chief constables do. To put political policing, as you call it, all down to Special Branch simply does not stand up.

Given the way his lengthy police career had come to an abrupt end I wanted to discuss some of the factors that led to his parting from the PSNI. He resigned ‘in acrimonious and disputed circumstances’ after a confrontation with the chief constable, Hugh Orde, over allegations that he had leaked confidential information about Operation Torsion, as the raid on the offices of Stormont Sinn Fein became known, to the BBC’s Brian Rowan. He was adamant that he would not discuss anything relating to charges brought against those arrested after the Stormont search. ‘There is a court case pending and I am not prepared to say anything that might affect the outcome.’

Nevertheless, there are things in the public record said by him which he should be able to talk about. For example, he is on record as saying: 'I felt during the whole operation that I was running, constant pressure from the security services, that it would be better if we didn't take skulls, if we just took papers. It would leave Sinn Fein/Provisional IRA a chance of denying they were involved in it.’ Elsewhere he had taken up his case with the Policing Board, claiming he was forced out, and humiliated ‘as a gift to Sinn Fein to try and make the political talks work … The security service saw an opportunity to give them something by forcing me into a position that I had to retire – to give them a scalp. I felt humiliated, degraded, embarrassed and betrayed.’

But was this not overstating the influence of Sinn Fein?

I had only about ten weeks left to serve in the police at the time this happened. I leaked nothing of a security nature nor endangered anybody. Anything that I told the BBC was already in the public domain. But M15 told the Chief Constable that they wouldn’t work with me after the search at Sinn Fein’s office at Stormont. I have been told that Gerry Kelly was insisting that I would have to go and also that Alan McQuillan could no longer carry on as Assistant Chief Constable after Alan wrong footed the Provos at Ardoyne by exposing their intentions to cause a riot during the mad season parades and made them appear foolish.

It had been speculated that Operation Torsion was a case of Special Branch paying republicans back for the break in at Castlereagh. Sinn Fein and the IRA have both denied IRA involvement.

Bill Lowry laughed. ‘The Provos did Castlereagh. Our reason for searching the Stormont offices was to regain ground, not to rub the Provos’ noses in it.’

I made it known to him that some people, who are often described as ‘dissident republicans', were of the view that Special Branch wanted rid of some of its dodgy files and decided to set the Provisionals up. Once the IRA took the bait and raided Castlereagh, Special Branch was free to tell Nuala O’Loan or John Stevens that any files they might require as part of their investigations had disappeared during the St Patrick’s Day break in. He seemed to view this as one more conspiracy theory. ‘The Provos thought they were getting the Crown jewels but all they got were a few books of no consequence.’

At this point gowned graduates and their families out for celebratory meals began to swamp our space. We had talked for two hours already, and with the appearance of young university ‘post’ graduates flush with the radiance of achieving their degrees, it seemed an appropriate time to switch the conversation to purely cerebral matters. I asked him what he liked to read. If I anticipated that he would tell me his book-browsing took him to the shadows - something like Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or Conrad's The Secret Agent - I was to be disappointed. Despite being in good physical shape he quipped that he should really read the Atkins Diet. He has a particular interest in US politics and likes to watch current affairs programmes rather than read books on it. However, he rarely misses the Irish Times or the column he 'loves' by Kevin Myers. The thought crossed my mind that republicans will hate him more for that than for having being in Special Branch. Bill Lowry has tried reading Killing Rage by Eamonn Collins but always put it down. 'That is evidence of penetration the other way. A Provo using his position in the Customs Service to gather intelligence for the purpose of killing people.' I wondered if he, like Martin Ingram, was appalled by the Freddie Scappaticci depicted by Eamon Collins in his book as someone who clearly enjoyed power and murder. Did it create pangs of conscience in some corners of the British intelligence community that it happily let a torturer and multiple killer like Scap run loose for so many years? Sources before lives?

He disputed the conclusion but side stepped any exchange about Scappaticci. He had already told me he would not discuss sources.

His concluding comments were concise.

What I want people to know is that I did nothing wrong. I was the sacrifice to keep the Provos happy. Hugh Orde is alleged to have said somewhere that I was offered a post of similar rank elsewhere in the force. If he did say it, he is mistaken. I was told to go off and do a bit of gardening for a couple of weeks.

I enjoyed the exchange with Bill Lowry. I better understand the thinking behind a person such as him as a result. But I could never share his benign interpretation of the role played by RUC Special Branch throughout the violent conflict. True, that the Provisionals were prepared to settle up for an internal solution would add weight to his view that it was all for nothing. Nevertheless, his position that the IRA campaign made policing abnormal is one I examine from its flip side. Special Branch and many other facets of British security policy helped produce and sustain the armed republican campaign. Anger is still palpable within working class nationalist communities when the relationship between Special Branch and the killers of Pat Finucane is mentioned. It is a fiery anger that the British seem to want to douse with petrol each time they move to block investigations which might reveal more rather than less about the involvement of Special Branch.

As a republican there is nothing that would ever tempt me to support a British police force in a partitioned Ireland whether powers over policing and justice are devolved to the puppet parliament or not. As a socialist, I would never serve or endorse any of the capitalist state’s repressive apparatuses. The challenge facing any radical is to hold them to account, never to run them. What would republicanism stand to gain from Gerry Kelly organising British state repression in Ireland? Just as when Bairbre de Brun and Martin McGuinness organised the assault of private capital on the public sector, the justice and policing ministry, no matter who staffs it, will foremost benefit the powerful and underpin the type of stability Britain requires in the North.

As we parted, the irony underpinning how things can change struck me. It was clear that whatever the differences between myself and Bill Lowry, unlike Gerry Kelly perhaps, neither of us has a future as a British cop in the PSNI.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Historians and economists {subsidized by governments} are very good at creating and perpetuating myths that justify increasing the power placed in the hands of government.
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Index: Current Articles

11 July 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Miscarriages of Justice
Martin Cunningham

Dolours Price

Yes, Let's Do
George Young

Interview with Bill Lowry:
Forbidden Fruit
Out from the Shadows
Political Policing
Anthony McIntyre

8 July 2004

"Fury at Community Newspaper Funding"
Carrie Twomey

Don't Buy A British Lie
Geraldine Adams

Encouraging Debate
Mick Hall

Magpie's Nest
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Scargill in Ireland
Anthony McIntyre

Rev. Ian Harte
Davy Carlin

Family and Community Workers Concerned at False Reporting
Monkstown Community Resource Centre

Food, Trade and US Power Politics in Latin America
Toni Solo


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