Democracy undermined by securocrats' meddling
On St Patrick's Day 2002, hundreds of files on police informers and the codenames of scores of Special Branch officers were stolen from the headquarters of the Police Service of Northern Ireland's (PSNI) Special Branch at Castlereagh Police Station.
The authorities were astonished that the raid had occurred in a security complex that was among the most heavily guarded places in the North. Access to the complex was carefully controlled and vetted.
The immediate result of the raid was that more than 100 PSNI officers were forced to move home at a cost of millions of pounds to taxpayers. Large numbers of police informers who suspected that their details had been uncovered also quietly fled their homes.
At the time, the IRA was blamed for the raid, but it denied involvement. Sinn Féin claimed it had been organised by rogue elements in the security forces who wanted to collapse the Northern Assembly and end the party's role in government.
And it nearly did. But it has now emerged that the PSNI's chief suspect in the case, a New York-born chef named Larry Zaitschek, was a close contact of former senior Sinn Féin member Denis Donaldson, who was recently unmasked as a British agent.
In the mid-1990s, Donaldson was working for Sinn Féin in the US and befriended Zaitschek whose now-estranged wife came from Belfast. Zaitschek later came to live in Belfast with his wife and got a job as a chef at Castlereagh.
After the robbery, Zaitschek suddenly disappeared back to the US. The PSNI has indicated that he will be arrested if he returns to the North; however, no extradition proceedings have yet been issued.
Seven months later, in October 2002, the PSNI raid on the Stormontgate ‘spy ring' finally resulted in the collapse of the Assembly and power-sharing. On that day, even though Sinn Féin had more than 20 offices at Stormont, only Donaldson's office was raided by the police.
With Donaldson's cover now finally blown, the Castlereagh files robbery clearly requires some explaining.
For a start, how could Zaitschek get such a job, given the security clearance required to work in the nerve centre of police intelligence and his links with Donaldson and Sinn Féin?
Were Donaldson's handlers alerted to Zaitschek's links? And if they were aware of his links, could it be that Donaldson and Zaitschek were only bit players in a raid on Castlereagh initiated by Donaldson's own handlers?
And if these handlers were members of the PSNI's Special Branch, why were they raiding their own offices? Even worse, if Donaldson's handlers were MI5 agents, why were they organising a raid on the PSNI's Special Branch files?
No files have subsequently turned up, nor has anyone ever been charged with the theft. One wonders where they are now?
For what it's worth, Donaldson has now said that there was no spy ring at Stormont and that it was all a Special Branch fit-up.
What has emerged, however, is a credible explanation for the refusal of the North's Public Prosecution Service to continue with the trial of Donaldson and his two co-accused in connection with the raid.
The British authorities may have been concerned that Donaldson was going to break his cover at the trial and reveal what he knew about the raid, while simultaneously denying the existence of the Stormont spy ring.
There has been considerable evidence that, since the peace process began, relations between the old RUC's Special Branch and British intelligence services have approached something akin to open warfare.
Had Donaldson used his trial to break his cover and open up this vista, the implications would have been enormous.
Historically, many Special Branch officers have been bitterly opposed to any peace process with their Republican enemies. Some even felt that they would be prosecuted at a later stage for their activities during the Troubles.
Others found the ongoing investigations into matters such as the Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson murders and the Dublin/Monaghan bombings deeply unsettling.
Apparently, some fear prosecution so much that they have relocated to Spain, which has complex extradition requirements.
Was this the reason for the British government's sudden addition to its recent ‘on the runs' legislation, which granted an amnesty to the security forces?
But above all, the winding-up of the RUC and the early retirement of many Branch members, left large numbers of them deeply embittered.
Given the extraordinary nature of recent events, is it too fantastic to consider the Castlereagh raid and Stormontgate as evidence of a private feud within the British security forces? Was Castlereagh actually about embarrassing the Special Branch and was Stormontgate the Branch's revenge?
Nobody can know for certain but yet again, the whole farrago raises the old question about political control - or lack of it - over British security and intelligence forces. For Dublin, these matters are very grave. How on earth can anyone conduct serious political business with a government that is either deeply duplicitous or, even worse, doesn't know what its ‘political' police are doing?
When the Stormontgate trial collapsed, the Taoiseach understandably said that he had no idea what was going on and neither, I suspect, do many of us.
But there is one thing going on that we all recognise and that is that, once again - as with the collapse of power-sharing back in 1974 – the North's political future is being guided by agencies that are neither political nor democratically elected.
That is simply unacceptable and London needs to be publicly told so.
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