The Belfast Court of Appeal issued a significant decision on “collusion” in the Glenanne Report Challenge case.

Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan, along with Justices Stephens and Keegan, held family members of those murdered by the Glenanne gang “had a legitimate expectation that an analytical report on collusion would be carried out by an independent police team” and ordered the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to conduct an independent inquiry into alleged collusion between State security officers and members of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). 

In 2014, the PSNI halted an overarching review of collusion allegations in the “Glenanne Gang linked cases.”  Edward Barnard, whose brother Patrick (13) was killed by the gang in a bombing on St. Patrick’s Day in 1976, sought judicial review of the police inaction. In 2017, a lower court directed the PSNI to complete and publish a thematic report on the Glenanne Gang murder cases.  The former PSNI Chief Constable appealed.   

In response to the appellate court decision, Mr. Barnard said family members “will keep on fighting for the truth for our dead relatives, because with the truth we honor them.” His lawyer said the court “told us today what we always knew - that there was a state policy of collusion relating to the Glenanne series.”

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He added, “these families have waited long enough for the truth and it’s now time that truth and justice was publicly reported in a public document with the police signature at the top of it.” The appellate court ruling makes that possible.

Responding to the decision, Northern Ireland’s new Chief Constable Simon Byrne said he will appoint an “independent police team to conduct an analytical report on collusion as ordered by the court.” He noted these challengers, “like too many other families, have suffered as a result of the Troubles and, understandably, they continue to seek answers in respect of the deaths of their loved ones.”

The Glenanne gang operated out of a farm in Glenanne, Co. Armagh, during the 1970s. Its members included UVF paramilitaries and serving or former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and Ulster Defense Regiment (UDR). The gang has been implicated in almost 90 sectarian murders, including the 1975 Miami Showband Massacre and the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings which killed 33 people - “the greatest loss of life on a single day throughout the conflict.”

Mark McGovern, the author of the new book Counter Insurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland, explains the gang was “involved in a series of sectarian assassinations, including organizing mass killings in bars in neighboring nationalist towns and villages.” He posits military and political officials were aware of these activities. 

For example, McGovern describes surveillance of the farmhouse prior to one attack in 1976. A UDR captain, who had supplied explosives, warned the owner, an RUC Reservist, the farm was being watched. During the night, the surveillance was lifted.  Shortly thereafter, “bombers, including several members of the security forces, carried out” an attack on the Step Inn in the predominantly Catholic town of Keady. Two people were killed and 22 seriously injured.  After the bombing, the RUC withheld critical information - “who planned and carried out the attack” - from investigators. As a result, the investigation was fundamentally flawed.  The farmhouse, for example, was not searched.

The kind of “state-sponsored violence and secret collaboration between State forces and paramilitary groups” that occurred in the Step Inn bombing case is collusion. And it is just one of many Glenanne gang collusive murders. 

The State’s failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for crimes, reveal the truth to victims and take steps to prevent recurrence allowed security forces to act with impunity. The Glenanne gang case shows a culture of impunity existed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Even the judiciary had a role in supporting this culture. In 1978, John Weir, a member of the RUC Special Patrol Group and Glenanne gang, was arrested for murder.  He confessed and named other gang members.  Several arrests and prosecutions of gang members followed.  One case involved the 1976 Rock Bar gun and bomb attack. Weapons from the Rock Bar attack had been used to murder three brothers at their home earlier in the year in another collusive killing.

Four members of the RUC were charged with the attempted murder of seventeen people inside the bar. They pled guilty to various lower charges, such as causing an explosion, possession of firearms and explosives with intent, and concealing an offense. Lord Chief Justice Robert Lowry imposed sentences of between 2 and 7 years and turned justice on its head by defending the actions of those he sentenced.

As quoted by Anna Cadawallader in Lethal Allies, at sentencing, Chief Justice Lowry said: “[A]ll of them have acted either wrongly or emotionally under the same powerful motives, in one case the mortal danger of their service and in the other the feeling that more than ordinary police work was needed and was justified to rid the land of the pestilence which has been in existence. It does not seem realistic to believe that after all that they endured - some with their careers in ruins, others with their careers in jeopardy - that they require much by way of deterrent or by way of reform.” Based on this reasoning, he said, it is “just” to impose a sentence on a “lower scale from that appropriate to terrorists . . . whose aim is to achieve their political ends by violence and to attack the very fabric of society.” 

Chief Justice Lowry ignored the defendant officers’ betrayal of their oath of office, perversion of the rule of law and unabashed sectarian hatred and savagery, and at the same time made his disdain for members of the IRA clear. His goal may have been to ensure that others similarly ignored the essence of the defendants’ conduct. In his book Low Intensity Operations, General Frank Kitson, the guru of the counter-insurgency strategy deployed by the British in Northern Ireland, argued “[t]he law should be used as just another weapon in the Government’s arsenal. . . . [T]he activities of the legal services have to be tied into the war effort in as discreet a way as possible.” Sadly, the court system played its part in effecting this strategy by administering Special Powers laws in non-jury courts.

Relatives of victims of the Troubles have been fighting for decades to learn the truth about why their loved ones were killed and who is responsible. Since the initial Glenanne gang judicial review was instituted 4 years ago, 20 relatives of Glenanne victims have died.  By ordering the disclosure of a report on collusion, the most recent court decision suggests Northern Ireland’s judiciary led by Chief Justice Morgan is willing to address government inaction on behalf of victims. Their decision sends a forceful message to officials.

End the obstruction! Get to the truth! It is time to move toward a resolution that affirms the rule of law and the obligations of those who enforce it.

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