Northern Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson repeatedly used a curious phrase in her damning report this week on police links to the killings of loyalist paramilitaries in the 1990s.
The long-running investigation detailed the handing over of weapons to terrorists by police officers, the destruction of files relating to loyalist informants implicated in the shootings of Catholics and the failure to inform targets that their lives were in danger.
It was, Ms Anderson found, ‘collusive behaviour’ between the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), its special branch and terrorists carrying out a bloody campaign of patently sectarian killings.
The term, used nine times in its 344 pages, and several times by Ms Anderson in her public statement on the release of the report, would have been new to many, who may have wondered, “Why not just say ‘collusion ‘?”
“I’m not as uptight about it as maybe others are,” said Paul O’Connor of the Derry-based human rights organization Pat Finucane Center.
“I consider collusive behavior to be collusion. I consider giving weapons to loyalists that were then used to murder people to be collusion. I consider that not deliberately doing proper investigations, destroying documents, directing agents that you cannot direct to prevent people from dying, but simply informing you of what is happening, I consider all of this to be collusion.
“That’s what the ombudsman described in his report.”
The unknown phraseology has its roots in a legal challenge brought by retired Northern police officers against a former police mediator, Dr Michael Maguire, for finding state collusion in Loughinisland atrocities.
Five people were murdered and five others injured when Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen opened fire in the Heights bar in the village of Co Down while watching a World Cup football match in June 1994.
In June 2020, the Belfast Court of Appeal ruled that Dr Maguire had ‘overstepped the mark’ with a report which amounted to ‘findings of criminal offenses by members of the police force’.
The police watchdog was forced to change its report, but attempts by retired officers to have it quashed failed.
“I think if Ms. Anderson said collusion in her report this week, she would be open to a legal challenge,” Mr. O’Connor said.
“So if that means she’s using the phrase ‘collusive behavior’, I’d rather have that and the families get the report, rather than her using the word ‘collusion’ and having the report tied to legal challenges.
“It’s deeply frustrating for the families who are waiting.”
But the human rights activist has no doubts in his mind what “collusive behavior” really means.
“It’s a very strange term, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck,” he says.
It’s a view shared by Kevin Winters, who runs human rights law firm KRW and was an apprentice to Pat Finucane when he was murdered in 1989, in an alleged collusion case. of State.
“Collusive behavior is collusion,” he said.
“We make no legal or other distinction between the two.
“We appreciate that the Ombudsman’s approach to the use of such terminology is cautious, but this is understandable given the broader sensitivities to legal obligations.”
Andrée Murphy is deputy director of Relatives for Justice, which supports the families of 11 murder victims and 27 survivors of attempted murders by loyalist informants, detailed in Ms Anderson’s report.
In addition to the firearms used in the murders being given to the killers by police, a ‘blind eye’ has been turned on their activities and there have been ‘significant’ investigative and intelligence failures, he said. found.
The Association of Retired Police Officers of Northern Ireland was contacted for a response, but did not immediately respond.