Northern Ireland news

New Chief Constable confirms independent police probe after Glennane Gang ruling

Families and supporters of victims of the Glennane Gang outside court in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Connla Young

AN independent police team will investigate alleged collusion between security forces and the loyalist Glenanne Gang, the new PSNI chief constable has confirmed.

Simon Byrne announced the probe would be set up after the Court of Appeal ruled that victims' families had a legitimate expectation that an independent investigation would take place.

The Glennane Gang was a loyalist paramilitary unit linked to up to 120 murders, mainly in Mid Ulster and border areas.

Based at a farm in Glenanne, Co Armagh, it is believed to have included members of the RUC and Ulster Defence Regiment.

The gang is thought to be responsible for atrocities including the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the 1975 Miami Showband massacre, and the Step Inn pub bombing in Keady, Co Armagh.

The court verdict yesterday came after the PSNI attempted to overturn a ruling that it had unlawfully frustrated any chance of an effective investigation into the gang's deadly attacks.

In 2017 the High Court held that victims' families had been frustrated in their expectations that the now-defunct Historical Enquiries Team (HET) would produce a major report into the activities.

Proceedings were brought by Edward Barnard, whose 13-year-old brother Patrick was among four people killed in a St Patrick's Day bombing at the Hillcrest Bar in Dungannon in March 1976.

Five years later Dungannon UVF member Garnet James Busby received a life sentence after admitting his role in the no-warning attack and other paramilitary offences.

Mr Byrne said last night that the PSNI accepted the court ruling.

"Our thoughts first and foremost, are with the Barnard family and those with them in court today," he said.

"They 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.

"I accept today's judgment and, while we will take time to consider the fullness of its implications, we will now commence work to appoint the Independent Police Team to conduct an analytical report on collusion as ordered by the court."

In the ruling, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan held there had been a "clear and unambiguous" representation about an overarching analysis of suspected state collusion around the Glenanne Gang's series of killings in the 1970s.

Although he found no enforceable duty under human rights law due to the passage of time, Sir Declan indicated the onus was now on police to consider whether to complete and publish a thematic report.

He said: "The Chief Constable's task is to appoint independent officers who should then determine how to respond to the expectation."

A draft HET report into alleged security force collaboration with the killers was said to have been 80 per cent finalised before being shelved.

Challenging the High Court ruling, counsel for former Chief Constable Sir George Hamilton insisted the Hillcrest investigation met the "gold standard" of human rights obligations by securing a conviction.

He also argued that an HET review into the bombing identified no collusion with the killers.

But Mr Barnard's lawyers told the Court of Appeal that several promises meant there was a compelling case for producing an overarching report.

They claimed off-duty police officers and soldiers were connected by weapons to the "extraordinary pattern" of loyalist killings.

Members of the security forces were involved in a "state practice" of murder, according to their case.

Delivering judgment in the appeal, Sir Declan upheld the finding that police representations amounted to a procedural legitimate expectation.

"We do not consider that the appellant has shown that it was fair to disappoint the expectation and accordingly we agree that the learned trial judge was entitled to conclude that the respondent was entitled to rely upon it," he said.

Because the Hillcrest Bar killings occurred 24 years before the Human Rights Act came unto force, the court said there is no Article 2 duty to complete such an investigation.

Deciding not to make an order compelling police to act, Sir Declan instead declared that Mr Barnard's legitimate expectation that independent officers would analysis the HET database for any wider collusion between terrorists and security forces in the Glenanne series of killings had been breached.

He cautioned: "If, however, the Chief Constable unduly delays in appointing independent officers he would be at risk of further proceedings challenging such a failure."

Solicitor Kevin Winters, who represents some of the victims' families, described the outcome as a "resounding affirmation" of the High Court finding.

"Since this case started many people have since passed away and never lived to see the latest outcome in the ongoing legal battles for justice and truth recovery," he said.

"The delay apart, this is a momentous day for the families of all conflict-related cases.

"It's a good day for justice when the Court of Appeal makes such a strong pronouncement for independent policing in a case like this."

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