A police ombudsman (PONI) report highlighting “significant investigative failures” around a sectarian murder 1993 contains a “catalogue of innuendo,” a former senior officer has claimed.
Ombudsman Marie Anderson said the security forces response to the UFF/UDA murder of Damien Walsh, 17, in west Belfast was hampered by “collusive behaviours”.
Among a number of serious allegations, Ms Anderson said police failed to capitalise on significant investigative opportunities – including failing to arrest suspects and not conducting searches of their homes – and that there was a failure to share important intelligence with the murder probe’s senior investigating officer (SIO).
The ombudsman was also highly critical of the fact that although the Dairy Farm complex, where the fatal shooting occurred, had been under surveillance at the time, this was not shared with the SIO.
During the course of the PONI investigation, it was established that covert RUC officers had been shadowing the UFF gang suspected of carrying out sectarian murders in the area, but were redirected to stake-out a large consignment of IRA bomb-making material discovered in a separate part of the Dairy Farm complex to where Mr Walsh was shot.
Although her office found no evidence that police had any advance warning of the murder or could have prevented it, Ms Anderson said she found it surprising that the surveillance on the UFF suspects was lifted three days before the murder.
Defending the original police investigation, the deputy SIO told PONI that although he accepted that “any review of a pressurised police enquiry during the ‘Troubles’ should identify areas where those leading the enquiry might have done better,” he did not accept “the catalogue of innuendo whereby accepted procedures at the time were presented as significant shortcomings”.
Outlining the former officer’s response, the report said: “This demonstrated a woeful failure on the part of my investigators to understand relevant procedures at the time and the sound reasons for them.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Nolan Show on Thursday morning, former ACC Alan McQuillan said he fully understands why police at the time would frequently have to prioritise one surveillance operation over another.
“You could have 30 plus officers involved continuously over a period of weeks. You can’t simply resource everything,” he said.
“They knew the IRA was out to kill and they were trying to stop all of the individuals concerned, but you had to switch resources from one job to another.
“I had to do it in 2000, 2002 and 2003. You were continually trying to balance the resources with the threats that you faced to try to get the best outcome for everybody.
“It wasn’t easy and there wasn’t an infinite pool [of specialist officers],” Mr McQuillan added.
Yesterday morning, Ms Anderson told the Good Morning Ulster programme that RUC efforts to curtail the activity of the UFF/UDA in the Shankill area of Belfast in 1993 were reasonably successful.
“The members of ‘C Company’ were being frustrated – their terrorist activities were being frustrated because of this surveillance. Nevertheless, in my view surprisingly, that surveillance was lifted on 22 March 1993, three days before Damien’s murder.
“In terms of the family they have every cause for complaint.”
No one has been convicted of involvement in Mr Walsh’s murder.
Pointing out that one of the guns used in the murder is believed to have been part of a shipment successfully smuggled into Northern Ireland in late 1987, “due to police failings,” Ms Anderson said: “I have identified what I call layers of collusive behaviour,”
The majority of the shipment in question was intercepted by police in January 1988 in Portadown and three people jailed for up to 19 years.
As well as detailing a number of shortcomings in the police investigation, the PONI report reveals that the work of the RUC detectives was impeded by a lack of witness cooperation, and the fact that the forensic examination of key exhibits did not prove a DNA match for the main suspects.
The PONI report reveals that of the seven key witnesses asked to take part in an ID parade involving a main suspect, all seven either refused to take part or were unavailable.
One of the main witnesses (Witness 5) made an initial statement in which he outlined how a police officer assisted with the first aid effort.
Commenting on this statement, made the day after the murder, PONI said it details how “a police man gave him a bandage and he tried to put it round Dee’s [Damien’s] back.”
In a second statement, provided at the time of the inquest, the same witness describes the same situation but said it was a soldier who provided the bandage.
A third statement is referred to in the PONI report as follows: “Witness 5 later provided an account to my investigators where he stated that he asked a police officer for a field dressing.
“The police officer ‘sarcastically’ replied that the dressing ‘was stuck.’ This was not mentioned by Witness 5 in his two previous accounts.
“It is my view, given the available evidence that Damien was provided with medical assistance while waiting for ambulance staff to arrive.
“There is no corroborative evidence to support the allegation that a police officer refused to hand over a field dressing.”
Ms Anderson also expressed concern that the initial report of the after dark gun attack, given by military personnel from a distant observation position, misidentified the red Vauxhall Astra estate getaway car as a red Volvo estate.
In the report, Ms Anderson states: “The UDA/UFF alone were responsible for Damien’s murder. However, I have identified investigative failings and gaps as well as collusive behaviours by police which I believe failed both Damien and his family,” she said.
In response to a News Letter enquiry, Ms Anderson said: “A Court of Appeal ruling of 18 June 2020 on a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association makes it clear that the Police Ombudsman may not make a determination of collusion. However, the Police Ombudsman may, in responding to a complaint which alleges collusion, identify collusive behaviours.”
Quoting Damien’s mother, Marian Walsh, the Relatives For Justice group said: “Damien was seven years old when we moved into our new home. He was the middle one of our five kids. The house was always noisy with children, pets and friends.
“Damien loved having a dog and taking it on adventures to Colin Glen and up into the mountains.”