On 16 January 1980, the then Chief Constable of the RUC commissioned a report on the interchange of intelligence between Special Branch (SB) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and on the staffing and organisation of various other RUC units. This was written by one Patrick J. Walker, then a senior officer in the Belfast base of MI5 and later Director-General of the whole organisation.
The existence of the report and some of its implications were revealed by UTV, the Guardian and other media in 2001 but the report itself remained secret. After a long running freedom of information campaign to access the report, and just as the case was about to be heard by the First Tier Information Tribunal on 1st May 2018, the PSNI agreed to release a “lightly redacted” version of the report to the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). We received a copy on 3rd May but it was embargoed until 1st August or until a legacy inquest, to which the report was to be disclosed, concluded its relevant processes, whichever would be the earlier. We were notified that the embargo on placing it into the public domain was lifted in late June and the report is now published on the CAJ website here.
The release of the report means the removal of another brick in the wall of silence and obfuscation that has been erected to prevent the truth emerging about the activities of Special Branch and other state agencies during the conflict. The report itself recommended structural change in the RUC which gave effective operational control over all activities relevant to combating “subversive crime” to Special Branch. It was the foundation of what became to be called “the force within a force” and facilitated the primacy of intelligence over prosecution, the authorisation of agents and informants to commit serious crime and in some cases collusion between Special Branch and illegal armed groups.
The report opens with some telling definitions. The term “agent” referred to SB recruits who were “to provide information on the activities of a subversive organisation.” These would typically be long term agents paid a regular stipend. “Informant” was the term used for more casual CID recruits whose function was “to provide information on criminal activities.” The terminology itself implies that SB would be controlling and directing its “agents,” whereas CID would have a much looser relation with its “informants.”
In any event, the report recommends that all CID informants who were members of “subversive organisations” should be declared to Special Branch at central and regional levels. It goes on to say that wherever possible CID agents should be handed over to SB or at least handled jointly. In other words, Special Branch was to take over all what are now called Covert Human Intelligence Sources within paramilitary organisations.
Early in the report, protection for agents is explicitly put in place. CID could not charge an agent with any crime without the approval of Special Branch – it must only happen as “the result of a conscious decision by both SB and CID.” Furthermore, agents were to be protected from arrests: “All proposals to effect arrests, other than those arising directly out of an incident, must be cleared with SB to ensure that no agents, either RUC or Army, are involved.” This effectively means that no action against paramilitary organisations was to be taken except with the express authorisation of Special Branch.
It is clear that the report author felt that “interviews” of suspects were a prime location for the recruitment of new agents. He instructed CID to be aware of the possibility of recruitment when interviewing someone and that they should involve Special Branch at an early stage. They were also to liaise closely with SB in terms of any possible intelligence. Where a suspect made no admission of an offence but might have had intelligence, he was to be handed over to SB. Similarly, even where an admission was made, the suspect had to be interrogated by SB with the possibility of recruitment, before he was charged.
In saying that SB needed to be more involved in the euphemistically termed “interviews,” the report author commented on the situation in “early 1972” when SB “became reluctant to be involved in interviews,” “partly due to the attitude of the Judiciary and Director of Public Prosecutions to SB questioning in the then Holding Centre in Holywood barracks…” This is presumably a coy reference to the fact that even a case-hardened judiciary and a less than notably progressive DPP had been unable to stomach the methods SB were using on suspects within the protective perimeter of Palace Barracks.
Another interesting sidelight illuminating RUC culture notes that “information available to uniformed officers is not being reported fully. This is particularly true of Reservists who are best placed to report local activity but are often reluctant to do so.” One can only speculate as to why the controversial Reservists would be unwilling to report on “local activity,” but it seems they had a less than loyal attitude towards the force of which they were auxiliary members.
Throughout the report, the emphasis is on developing Special Branch as the hub and focus in combating subversive crime. E3 Branch in SB Headquarters had apparently undergone some re-organisation as the result of an earlier report, the name of which is redacted. Walker commented that: “This reorganisation should develop it’s (sic) function as the driving force in investigations of and operations against subversive organisations.” To that end, the branch is urged to “think operationally” and to establish close relations with those units in charge of targeting covert operations and also with CID “who will take on investigations from SB” – all presumably under the direction of SB.
There are a number of recommendations about restricting CID units’ collation of intelligence and even simple data about subversive crime and the centralisation of intelligence output in Special Branch headquarters. Other units were to be brought under SB control. The Weapons and Explosives Intelligence Unit (WEIU) and the Data Reference Centre (DRC) (which did all kinds of firearms related analysis) were recommended to join a beefed-up E3 branch as part of the SB family. This would mean that the collation and investigation of information based on analysis of weapons and explosives would all be brought under SB control. The report justifies this by remarking that scientific reports had to be brought together with all available intelligence to be most effective. “However,” it goes on, “SB will always have serious reservations about supplying their most sensitive reports on a regular basis to a group operating outside SB.” The ability of SB to decide who should get their intelligence is taken for granted – the solution is to bring all relevant units under their control.
Intriguingly, in the latter part of the report, there are a number of references indicating that Special Branch itself could choose which officers were placed with it. Discussing bringing the DRC under SB, the report says in relation to the head of the unit “(it would have to be an SB post if the newly appointed uniform Inspector is not acceptable to SB)” and goes on to make this a formal recommendation. In relation to the Weapons Unit, the report comments, “the Detective Inspector should be a member of SB (the present DI would be acceptable in SB).” So the “force within a force” even had control over who was recruited to its ranks. It would be really interesting to know what criteria for acceptability or not were used by SB in this exercise.
All in all, the Walker Report is a blueprint for how to turn a police force into a conflict-fighting weapon where victory against the “subversives” is the overriding priority and traditional functions such as preventing crime and upholding the rule of law are sidelined. You create a relatively small group of officers, distinct from the rest of the force, able to maintain their war-fighting ethos by vetting all recruits to their ranks, you concentrate intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination in their hands, you give them direct access to overt and covert operational resources, you allow them a veto over arrests and charges and you give them the ability to place agents of influence in armed groups, some of which claim to be fighting on the same side in the “war.” Of course, the RUC was already sectarian in composition and ethos, heavily and in some areas illegally armed and well used to repressive methods, but this report created an elite, counter-insurgency unit which chose who to allow into its magic circle and with access to and authority over all the resources of the wider force.
The creation of this anti-subversive “driving force” was designed to create a key combatant in the conflict – the question remains of who was leading and directing it? At a formal level, clearly the Chief Constable and the senior management of the RUC were in charge. The Chief Constable would participate in major discussions with the Army and politicians about the general direction of the counter-insurgency effort but it is questionable, given the structured autonomy of SB, how much influence he would have had over operations. One could also speculate about the extent of the power of the carefully filtered coterie of police officers who led SB itself.
There is, however, a major gap in the report. Even though its author was the Deputy Director of its Belfast station, there is not a hint of the existence, never mind the role, of the Security Service, MI5. The only non-Army or RUC unit mentioned is “NIFSL,” presumably the Northern Ireland Forensic Science Laboratory. We now know more about the role of MI5 during the conflict even from official sources such as the De Silva report. In 1980, MI5 was still fighting with MI6 for its Northern Ireland role and there was a London-based “Irish Joint Section” supposed to coordinate their efforts. However, MI5 clearly regarded SB as in some way its protégé and the De Silva report quotes former Deputy Chief Constable Blair Wallace describing the Service as a “valuable source of help for SB as a developing organisation.” The role of MI5 in Northern Ireland is still opaque but this report does tell us that back in 1980 it was about the business of creating a “force within a force” whose deeds and misdeeds we are still investigating today.