By RFJ Director Mark Thompson
In 2003 Relatives for Justice (RFJ) learned that the RUC destroyed thousands of documents, interview notes, and statements stored at Gough Barracks, Armagh. These related to key loyalist suspects involved in numerous murders throughout the North. The destruction also included evidence relating to those involved in the Loughinisland Massacre.
The admissions were first made during a series of preliminary inquest hearings at the Dungannon court before the then part-time coroner Roger McLarnon.
Lawyers for the PSNI and the MoD told the court that the RUC had destroyed a number of statements made by SAS soldiers in respect to the killing of three IRA Volunteers, Pete Ryan, Tony Doris and Laurence McNally, killed in a preplanned, premeditated ambush at Coagh, Co. Tyrone on June 3rd 1991.
In the ambush the car the three men were traveling in burst into flames due to the intensity of the gunfire, compounding the circumstances of the deaths for the families.
In correspondence to RFJ police later confirmed that material relating to a number of loyalist killings had also been destroyed in 1998.
The reason provided at the time to the court was that the building/outhouse in which these documents had been stored had an asbestos roof and therefore all the material was ‘contaminated’ and therefore posed a ‘health and safety risk’.
It later transpired that the destruction of material was far more widespread. As it happens the destruction of what was vital material evidence was on an industrial scale and related to hundreds of killings.
The families and the coroner were highly critical.
The families, supported by RFJ, raised the following questions at the time;
- Was there an independent examination of the health and safety risk?
- Was the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) called in and did they issue an order certificate?
- Could the material have been safely copied and the original documents then destroyed if the risk was as described?
- And who ordered the destruction?
These questions were never properly answered at the time
Coroner Roger McLarnon also asked these questions when raised by lawyers Eugene McKenna, Fiona Doherty and Seamus Tracey, representing the families.
However, there is a strongly held suspicion amongst families that the destruction of evidence was deliberate when placed within the wider context of what was happening at the time. It was a sort of cleaning up operation of problematic interview and statement documentation concerning some of the worst killings in the conflict that took place in an area that witnessed systemic collusion between the UDR/RIR, RUC Special Branch, British army intelligence, MI5 and loyalists over three decades.
This was an area in which the lines between those ‘security forces’, intelligence agencies and loyalists was often so blurred as to be at times only recognisable as one. For nationalists and republicans that represented death and fear.
The timing of the destruction took place as the Patten Commission on Policing was about to be established and significant changes were on the horizon for the RUC, something that had hitherto been unimaginable for them.
There was an unknown quantity and an uncertainty about the direction of policing. Many of its members were also about to leave and would avail of the huge payments to do so. However, they made sure they took with them documents, police notebooks, and paperwork relevant to murders, much of which we later learned in the course of the inquest into the 1994 killing of pensioner Roseann Mallon, were ‘destroyed’ by burning.
Or as in the case of Arlene Arkinson, who was abducted, murdered and her remains yet to be found, when Eric Anderson, the retired RUC investigating officer on that case, tried to sell the files he took with him when he left the police to UTV who secretly filmed him trying to do so.
We also learned through the work of solicitors Patricia Coyle, Nicola Harte and Paula Collins that the MoD too were destroying skip loads of documents relating to the conflict in the North by incineration until they successfully got a court order halting that destruction.
We have also learned that crucial documents and material were withheld from original inquests. Some of which have now mysteriously turned up!
We also know of the routine destruction of forensic and ballistic evidence; the destruction of guns just prior to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry; the apparent loss of material sent for forensic and ballistic examination to England; the coercion of forensic scientists to ‘beef up’ evidence in respect to seeking convictions of non-state combatants.
The list is endless and too numerous to reference. And when the evidence is destroyed we have some unionists trying to argue that because there are no RUC officers before the courts, then they are really innocent of wrongdoing and the overall claim of collusion is exaggerated and does not stack up!
Of course this is a disguised attack on the Police Ombudsman, an attack first led by the PSNI Chief Constable. And it is a move that is totally disrespectful to the families.
However, the PPS must act on the destruction of evidence and perverting the course of justice given the systemic nature of that practice which is designed to protect agents within paramilitaries. Otherwise the pathetic excuses offered merely facilitate a form of continuing impunity, which is unacceptable.
And we have the situation of those former police officers that, we are told, spent their careers trying to catch killers, now refusing to cooperate with the Police Ombudsman, and destroying evidence they took with them.
So the suspicions of families are well founded.
Start the focus at source and start putting those officers responsible before a jury.
In the report into Loughinisland the Police Ombudsman examines the asbestos matter at Gough and finds the following.
The RUC version of the destruction of material evidence
- Once it was suspected that there was an asbestos ‘risk’ at the storage facility within Gough Barracks, called ‘B’ Block, the RUC appointed the RUC Construction Services to examine ‘B’ Block;
- It was discussed at senior RUC level whether or not to clean and preserve the material but they decided this would cost too much;
- No inventory was made despite senior RUC knowing that sensitive material and documents where within the ‘contaminated’ area;
- The RUC Police Authority, we are told, directed RUC Construction Services to remove the asbestos;
- This too involved the destruction of all files by shredding prior to being then disposed of by safely dumping;
- There are no records at all of who within the RUC instructed these actions apart from the then Police Authority;
- No officers at the time can recall actual details;
- It was suggested that police officers should, with protective clothing and equipment provided by RUC Construction Services, enter the building marking sensitive material ‘RETAIN’ and non-sensitive ‘DESTROY’. However, this did not happen as officers refused under health and safety grounds;
- As with RUC Construction Services everything was overseen by RUC internal departments, including from the RUC Health & Safety Department;
- There is no written risk assessment whatsoever;
- Files relating to Loughinisland were also held within Block ‘B’ and also destroyed.