- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

LONDON At least two major investigations are under way into one of Northern Ireland's most embarrassing crimes in recent memory a burglary in which supersensitive documents disappeared on St. Patrick's Day from one of the most tightly guarded police offices in the country.
The province's police chief believes it was an "inside job," and the head of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is convinced British intelligence services were involved. But a former security agent believes the solution to the mystery of the stolen papers may soon be unraveled in headlines in British and Irish newspapers.
What is known for certain is this: Sometime on March 17, three men broke into the heavily fortified Castlereagh police station in East Belfast, tied up the lone officer on duty and made off with notebooks and other documents.
Castlereagh, Belfast's police headquarters, houses British Special Branch detectives who deal with intelligence work, including police informers, amid the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland that has claimed more than 3,000 lives over the past four decades.
The thieves centered their attention on the "source handling unit," the office area used as a contact point for informers and their police handlers.
The work of this Special Branch office is so sensitive that almost two weeks after the burglary, police still refuse to discuss details of what the thieves took away.
But police sources say the missing items include notebooks containing the names of informers inside the IRA as well as some of its hard-line splinter groups, and from the other side of the sectarian divide, various pro-British loyalist guerrilla organizations.
This has prompted Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, to suggest that British agents themselves pulled off the burglary exactly why, he did not say and that it was time London brought its security services "to heel."
Ronnie Flanagan, Northern Ireland's chief police constable, is convinced it was an "inside job," a conclusion he based on the fact that the burglars produced seemingly authentic army security passes to gain entry to the building.
Mr. Flanagan insisted that the stolen documents did not include the names of security force informers, adding that, in fact, the burglars may have gotten less than they expected.
Knowing this was a Special Branch facility, he said, the culprits "might have expected that there would be much more stored there, [but] there isn't."
However determined the police and political authorities are to keep their investigations under wraps, ex-security agent Willie Carlin suggests it may be out of their hands. He believes the Special Branch documents "were stolen to be made public, not destroyed."
For those keen to get to the final chapter in the mystery of the Castlereagh burglary, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the newspapers in the weeks to come.


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