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“Break-in” at Castlereagh

JM Thorn

24th March 2002

The break-in and theft of documents from Castlereagh police station on Saint Patrick’s Day (19th march) has been described as the biggest security breach in thirty years.  However, given the nature on this incident to describe it as a  “break-in” is rather misleading.  The precision of this operation, and the ease with which the raiders entered and left the building, points towards its having been carried out by elements within the British intelligent agencies.

According to media reports three men casually entered the Castlereagh complex at around 10pm on Sunday after displaying military identification at the security gates and telling the guards that they had business in the Green Hunts, the name given to the offices of Military Intelligence.   However, instead of heading to these they took a detour towards the offices of Special Branch.  Arriving at the office they were looking for they knocked on the door.  When the officer manning the office answered they punched him in the face, put a hood over his head, bound hands and feet, and placed earphones over his ears to prevent him from hearing anything.  The three men searched the office and after twenty minutes left the building as casually as they had entered with a number of documents in their possession. They were unarmed, unmasked and did not wear gloves.

Whoever stole the documents from Castlereagh knew the layout of the building and what material they looking for.  They were able to go directly to the office and take the particular documents they wanted without a frantic search.  Indeed, their knowledge must have been very up to date, as the contents of the office had only been moved there five days earlier due to refurbishment.  They also knew that security would be at a low level because of the holiday and that their identities would not be recorded by the security cameras because these are not connected to recording equipment (or so we are told).

The room they went to was also significant.  Known as Room 220, it acted as a type of telephone exchange for calls from informers.  It would be manned by a special branch officer who would take incoming calls.  He would use a codebook to match the caller with their Special Branch handler, record any message the informant had or relay the message to their handler.  According to media reports it was this codebook that was the most significant item taken by the raiders.  It contained list of all the special branch handlers alongside their code-names as well as a list of agents, or informers, code-names.  While this would be of little use on its own, putting it alongside other information could enable someone to identify the agents and their handlers.  Taken altogether, the reports of the theft indicate strongly that members of a British intelligence agency carried it.  They acted with the impunity of people who clearly believed they would not be called to account for their actions.


There are varying theories as to who carried out the theft of documents from Castlereagh and why.  The first theory is that it was the result of rivalry between Special Branch, Military Intelligence and MI5 over intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland.  In this scenario, the break-in was carried by either MI5 or the army in order to discredit Special Branch and create a situation which would lead to its responsibility for agent-handling being taken away.  This would enable Sinn  Fein to join the Policing Board, as it’s main objection to endorsing the new policing arrangements would have been removed since the new PSNI would no longer be responsible for running informers or agents.   Though this seems far-fetched, respected journalists such as Ed Maloney of the Sunday Tribune have put it forward as a possibility.  The major weakness of this argument is the assumption that the influence of Special Branch is in decline.  The experience of the Ombudsman’s report into the Omagh bombing clearly shows that is not the case.  A recent media report that a disproportional number of former Special Branch officers are being appointed to senior positions in the PSNI also seems to mitigate this argument.   Even if the Special Branch ceased to exist as an entity its dominant influence over policing is likely to continue. In any case some agency within the new PSNI would have to be responsible for liaising with military intelligence over the activities, information and running of informers not to mention recruiting new ones.

The second theory is that the robbery was carried out by one of the intelligence agencies to subvert possible future enquiries into security force collusion and the use of agents within paramilitary organisations.   Proponents of this theory point to the current Stevens inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane.  However, the Stevens inquiry has already completed its work.  It is also unlikely given the small quantity of material that was taken. The material relevant to the Finance case would be likely to fill several filing cabinets.

The third theory is that it was part of a plot to silence people who have made, or are threatening to make, public revelations about their lives as agents.  It was the revelations of  former agents such as William Stobie and Kevin Fulton that have focused attention on the role of the state in the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane and the Omagh bombing.  The fact that Stobie was murdered last year, in the wake of the collapse of his trial for involvement in the murder of Pat Finucane, is evidence that such a motive cannot be ruled out.


In response to the break-in the PSNI/RUC and the British government announced the establishment of two inquiries into the incident.  The police announced that it would be conducting a criminal investigation.   Soon afterwards, the Secretary of State John Reid announced that the government would also be conducting its own inquiry.  This is to be headed by Sir John Chilcott, a senior civil servant who works in the Cabinet Office on intelligence and security issues, and who has been described as a “counsellor” with MI5.  Significantly, Chilcott, as the senior official in the Northern Ireland office between 1990 and 1997, was a central figure in the secret negotiations which led to 1994 IRA ceasefire.  In effect, the investigation into to the Castlereagh break-in is being conducted by the agencies whose members are most likely to have carried it out.

The record of previous inquiries into the activities of the intelligence agencies in Northern Ireland also inspires little confidence.  High profile inquiries such as Stalker, Sampson and Stevens during the 1980’s & 90’s produced nothing.   They were undermined and obstructed at every turn.  Indeed, the recent break-in at Castlereagh has parallels with an earlier incident in 1990, when the office of the Stevens inquiry into collusion between loyalists and the security forces, which was housed in an RUC complex in Carrickfergus, was broken into and set on fire.  Even when the inquiries did produce reports, much of their contents were kept secret.  By declaring the theft of the documents form Castlereagh to be a matter of “national security” the British government has already set up the pretext for the suppression of any information on this latest incident that could be politically damaging.

While much of what has been reported about the Castlereagh break-in has so far been speculative, there is one thing that is very clear.  The power over policing remains firmly with the British Secretary of State and the police themselves.  They are investigating this incident, they are conducting the inquiries, and ultimately they will determine the conclusions.  Although nationalist politicians claim that a new start has been made to policing, there is still no prospect that the police, particularly Special Branch, will be made accountable or be subject to any real scrutiny.  The side-lining of the new Policing Board exposes nationalist claims to have created a new framework for an accountable police service to be entirely hollow.



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