- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 18 (UPI) — A slim 20-page report released in Belfast Thursday has unleashed a political firebomb on Northern Irish politics and the famed British Army and security services, just as they were riding high after the stellar British military performance in the second Gulf War.

The report is the result of a series of three colossal, 14-year-long investigations helmed by Britain's most senior serving police officer, Sir John Stevens, head of the London Metropolitan Police, and it pulls no punches. It accuses British army and intelligence officers of having secretly cooperated with Protestant unionist paramilitary organizations to single out Catholics as the victims of cold-blooded killings.

Speaking at a news conference in Belfast Thursday, Stevens said, "My inquiries have highlighted collusion. The willful failure to keep records, the withholding of intelligence and evidence and the extreme of agents being involved in murder."

The full Stevens Report is a colossal 3,000 pages long. It is the result of three separate massive inquiries he directed over the past 14 years. More than 10,000 documents totaling a million pages were examined. When piled together, they weighed four tons. Some 5,000 people were interviewed and 144 arrested, 94 of whom have so far been convicted. Stevens himself described the probe Thursday as "the largest investigation ever undertaken in the United Kingdom."

The full report has already been delivered to Northern Ireland prosecutors, and they are expected to seek indictments based on its evidence. The end result of this vast investigation, even in the terse summary Stevens has released to the public, is political dynamite. It is the biggest public breach in the previously impregnable wall of secrecy that has surrounded British counter-terrorism and security operations in Northern Ireland for the last 35 years.

Stevens is one of the most experienced and respected senior police officers in modern British history. His more than 40-year career culminated in 2000 when he took over London's Metropolitan Police, Britain's largest, most important and most prestigious police force. Since then he has acquired a stellar reputation for reviving the morale and efficiency of the force, which had been pummeled by previous scandals and public investigations.

Accusations and conclusions which would have been shrugged off if they came from many other quarters have especial impact coming from him. During most of the so-called Northern Irish Troubles, lasting 30 years from 1968 to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, spokesmen and supporters of the Catholic nationalist paramilitary Irish Republican Army have repeatedly accused British security forces and the old Northern Irish police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, of secretly cooperating with Protestant loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defense Association in the terror killings of Catholics.

As a consequence of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a probe into Northern Irish policing that resulted in the RUC being reorganized into the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. But so far, while this reform angered the 900,000-majority Protestant community, it has yet to show large-scale support and recruitment for the police among the minority 600,000 Catholic community, as was intended.

Stevens' report looks certain to revive old suspicions and reopen old wounds. The summary released Thursday focused on two specific murders — the killing of Catholic lawyer Patrick Finucane, shot 14 times in front of his wife and three children in 1989 and the 1987 slaying of Protestant teenager Brian Adam Lambert as crimes that should have been prevented. But Stevens has also said that he and his crack team of detectives are still probing no less than 26 other murders that potentially involved collusion between British security authorities and the loyalist paramilitary hit squads.

Stevens' released conclusions have caused a sensation in Britain. They could prove extremely damaging to the already-languishing Conservative opposition as most of the alleged collusion and killings took place during the long 18 years of Conservative rule under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. But they also may embarrass current Prime Minister Blair by rocking the Northern Irish peace process in which he has invested so much of prestige and ambition.

For new elections are scheduled next month to the local Northern Irish Assembly, and the new revelations may well play to the favor of the hard-line Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, improving their prospects. Evidence so far released from the inquiry also raises the intriguing and bizarre possibility that British security forces used their alleged collaboration with the loyalist paramilitary groups to protect the lives of senior Sinn Fein and IRA leaders whom they felt were more pragmatic and easier to deal with.

The ramifications of Stevens' revelations are therefore likely to be lasting as well as shocking. They also raise profound questions about the methods necessary to defeat terrorist insurgencies against democratic societies, and how far those societies can and should go in condoning extreme counter-measures. We will be exploring these issues in future UPI Analyses.

For now it can be certainly concluded that Stevens' report has opened a Pandora's box of political troubles, scandals and embarrassments on both sides of the Irish Sea that will not go away soon.

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