PSNI officer investigated for 20 years ... on word of Mount Vernon UVF killer Gary Haggarty

A former Special Branch detective has hit out at the Police Ombudsman (PONI) after a two-decade long investigation eventually ended with a ‘no further action’ determination from the PPS.

Friday, 8th October 2021, 4:30 am
A UVF wall mural in the Mount Vernon area of north Belfast. Photo: Pacemaker Belfast

He claims he was pursued by investigators “hanging on every word” of disgruntled former Mount Vernon UVF terrorist and police agent Gary Haggarty.

The former detective sergeant, who served in both the RUC and PSNI for a total of 25 years, said the stress of living with the threat of serious charges against him was at times unbearable – despite what he claims was an “obvious lack of evidence” of any wrong-doing.

Haggarty became an ‘assisting offender’ – providing evidence against his former UVF accomplices – and as part of the deal had his 35-year jail sentence reduced to six-and-a-half years.

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Former senior loyalist paramilitary turned so-called supergrass Gary Haggarty. Photo: Pacemaker Belfast

However, prosecutors declined to take any further action against 13 of the 16 persons named by Haggarty due to concerns over his reliability as a witness.

The outcome of the Haggarty court case angered victims’ families who have been involved in legal proceedings aimed at prompting more prosecutions.

The ex-officer, who supervised the SB handling of their agent Haggarty, said it should have been clear to PONI investigators from the start, that all intelligence received was fed into the system as required by law and police regulations.

“The Ombudsman investigators have been hanging on every word of someone who should have been identified as unreliable a long time ago,” he said.

Haggarty admitted to having been involved in five UVF murders and almost 500 other offences.

Among the victims’ families’ complaints are that the agent handlers could have prevented their loved one’s murders but didn’t.

The ex-officer, who was aged in his mid-60s, said: “If any agent had come to me and told me about a murder, then [the intended target] would still be alive.”

He also said there is a general misunderstanding around how difficult it was to evaluate the worth of each scrap of intelligence, coming from several sources, much of which was misleading or contradictory.

“These people didn’t tell us everything, and you can’t report something that you haven’t been told, and that was the big problem.

“Some of [the agents] were also good at passing on certain information to deflect away from what they were doing. You get a lot of half truths, and sometimes downright lies.

“Often it’s a case of you thinking you’re only getting half the story, but you have to weigh up whether getting half the story is better than nothing. And you have to put it in [to the system] as you have been told it.

“We didn’t work in isolation and at all times we were working under supervision. But we did save a lot of lives with that intelligence.”

The former sergeant has sought legal advice – claiming the prolonged investigation has been an abuse of his human rights.

On one occasion in 2006, PONI investigators, backed by a large number of PSNI officers in five vehicles, arrived at his home to effect his arrest.

He was working abroad at the time for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but presented himself voluntarily for interview, and said it became apparent that the reason he was being sought was in relation to a UVF bomb plot.

“PONI investigators asserted that the authorities in the Republic had not been informed about a bomb bound for Monaghan,” he said.

“It is important to note that the task of advising the Garda was not within my remit as a sergeant. I submitted the information to my authorities, they have the agreed mechanisms for advising other police services of relevant information. PONI should be aware of this fact.”

Still unsure if his ordeal is finally over, the ex-officer said he’s not in the mood to celebrate.

“It’s a funny feeling. I certainly wasn’t going out and celebrating, because I can understand how a lot of the victims feel.”

Although the main thrust of the PONI investigation appeared to be petering out in 2018, it was not until late September 2021 when a final ‘no prosecution’ decision was made by the PPS.

“The very last call I got to turn up for interview was in 2018. At the end of the interview they told me they had caught Haggarty out lying,” the ex-officer said.

“They didn’t tell me what it was, but it was obviously a big lie, because it turned out that my colleague [who was also named in the allegation] was in hospital with a severe back injury at the time and that it was all concocted.”

The former agent handler has been living under a UVF death threat for many years and has suffered from a stress-related illness and dangerously high blood pressure.

He said he hopes the UVF victims’ families get the justice they deserve, but said it is unfortunate that so much investigative energy was devoted to pursing the claims made by Gary Haggarty.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I had information that could have saved a life and didn’t act on it,” he added.

‘Allegations at core of probe very serious’

Responding to the claims made by the former Special Branch officer, a spokesman for the Police Ombudsman NI said: “These comments relate to two investigations by the Police Ombudsman’s Office.

“The first is Operation Ballast, the findings of which were published in 2007. The second separate but related investigation began in 2014.

“The allegations at the core of these investigations were extremely serious and demanded thorough investigation by our investigators. Those enquiries were conducted robustly and impartially, and actions undertaken were necessary and proportionate.

“The second investigation was progressed in parallel with a police investigation into serious allegations against members of the public.”

The PONI spokesman added: “We were required by law, on completion of our enquiries, to submit a file to the Public Prosecution Service.

“That file was submitted in March 2017 and the PPS directed no prosecution a number of months later. The PPS subsequently received a request for a review of that decision. That review, which last month upheld the direction not to prosecute, was a matter for the PPS alone.”

In 2018 a PONI spokesperson, commenting on the joint PONI/PSNI operation to arrest the former officer at his home address, said: “Any arrests in relation to these enquiries have been necessary and conducted in a proportionate way, with police support when required.

“We have received a series of complaints over the years from bereaved families about the actions of police officers in relation to the UVF in north Belfast.”

The statement added: “We have a duty to investigate each of these matters, and other issues which have come to our attention.”

• The police ombudsman probes into the activities of the Mount Vernon UVF began in 2001.

Around 2002, the then ombudsman Nuala O’Loan subsequently received a complaint from Raymond McCord regarding the UVF murder of his son Raymond jnr in 1997 – resulting in Operation Ballast.

This was mainly centred on the activities of a police agent within the Mount Vernon UVF, identified only as ‘Informant 1’ in her report which was published in January 2007.

She concluded that “over a number of years police acted in such a way as to protect informants” from being fully accountable to the law.

Lawyers acting for Gary Haggarty told the judge presiding over his sentencing hearing in December 2017 that he had passed on information that could have prevented the murders of Raymond McCord jnr and Gerard Brady.

This has been strenuously denied by the former Special Branch agent handler who spoke to the News Letter.

Haggarty admitted murdering four Catholic men in 1994 – Sean McParland, Eamon Fox and Gary Convie, and Sean McDermott.

He also admitted killing John Harbinson, a Protestant, in 1997,

A 55-year-old Belfast man is currently being prosecuted for the murders of Eamon Fox and Gary Convie.

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Special Branch agent handler '˜hung out to dry' after battle to save lives

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