An internal government assessment of a prominent Northern Ireland human rights organisation described the group as “biased”, declassified files reveal.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), which is still active, was the subject of high-level discussion within the NIO and between the RUC and the Army, files released at the Public Record Office under the 20-year rule show.
An analysis of the group by the NIO’s security division also described Kieran McEvoy, now a leading human rights professor at Queen’s University Belfast, as “strongly biased and opinionated”.
Last night he said that the CAJ’s line had remained consistent and it was the NIO which had moved to the position long espoused by the CAJ.
The files contain a two-page memo by James Turner in the NIO’s Security Policy and Operations Division.
The document was sent in response to a colleague’s request for details of the membership of the CAJ and an assessment of the group’s standing. Mr Turner said that the CAJ “describe themselves as ‘an independent civil liberties organisation formed in 1981 to work for the highest standards in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland’”.
He said that the group had in recent years produced reports about inquests, complaints, the use of force by the security forces and emergency legislation.
The restricted February 18 1994 memo went on to say that CAJ had “increasingly used ‘international force’ in an attempt to bring pressure to bear on the Government’”.
He said that “the RUC’s (printable) description of CAJ is that of a ‘self-appointed body of no official standing’”.
Mr Turner said that “CAJ claim to have a membership drawn from both sections of the community ‘including lawyers, students, community workers, trade unionists, unemployed people and academics’.
“In reality they are [a] left of centre group with mainly nationalist support (their current chairperson and former vice-chairperson of the SDLP, Angela Hegarty, found the social conservatism of her party irritating). Other executive members have differing shades of opinion ranging from the fairly sensible to the biased and naive.”
He said that the CAJ “remain firmly opposed to the use of violence to achieve political goals although there has been a shift in the leadership to a face less acceptable to the NIO.
“The author of CAJ’s monthly bulletin (Kieran McEvoy) is strongly biased and opinionated; today’s CAJ is not in the Brice Dickson mould.
“CAJ continue to produce distorted reports that fail to paint the whole picture.
“However, they remain a ‘fashionably radical’ rather than in any way sinister grouping.”
A note at the top of the memo beside the name Ms Johnston, said: “A regular ‘irritant’, the CAJ is wholly disliked by the RUC, but tolerated in other quarters. They have an unfortunate disregard of matters factual.”
Among many senior civil servants to whom the note was copied was Stephen Rickard, an MI5 officer working within the NIO who just a few months later would be killed along with 28 other people when the Chinook helicopter on which he was travelling crashed on the Mull of Kintyre.
Three days later, the private secretary to NIO security minister Sir John Wheeler wrote: “The minister was very grateful for your submission of 18 February which provided advice on the membership, and an assessment of the standing, of CAJ.
“Sir John has noted the submission with understanding and amusement.”
The file also contains a rare note from Northern Ireland’s most senior military officer, General Officer Commanding Sir Roger Wheeler, in which he suggested to the NIO’s permanent secretary that there should be a coordinated civil service, RUC and Army response to critical CAJ and Amnesty International reports.
Sir Roger said that a recent report by the CAJ had been met with a rebuttal which was jointly drafted by Stormont’s top press officer, Andy Wood, the RUC’s chief press officer, Bill McGookin, and the Army’s chief information officer in Northern Ireland, Nigel Gillies.
Sir Roger welcomed the fact that in response to an Amnesty international report which was critical of the security forces the secretary of state had written back to the group “challenging Amnesty to call on the paramilitaries to stop killing the security forces”.
Last night Professor McEvoy, who is no longer on CAJ’s board, said: “The NIO assessment that CAJ was and is unequivocally opposed to political violence is of course correct.
“As for the other suggestions, from memory, at the time we were working on issues such as reforming the police complaints system, public order policing and the role of human rights in the emerging peace process.
“Much of that work was subsequently reflected in the Patten report and Good Friday Agreement. CAJ’s line remained consistent; it was the NIO that changed.”