Special Branch agent handler ‘hung out to dry’ after battle to save lives

Former senior loyalist paramilitary turned so-called supergrass Gary Haggarty. Pacemaker Press
Former senior loyalist paramilitary turned so-called supergrass Gary Haggarty. Pacemaker Press

A former Special Branch detective who directly supervised the handling of UVF informant Gary Haggarty has spoken for the first time about the mental and physical trauma of spending 17 years under investigation.

The long-serving officer is one of two detectives who have been singled out for particular scrutiny over their roles in gathering intelligence from paramilitary gangs in north Belfast.

A sinister UVF mural in the Mount Vernon area of north Belfast

A sinister UVF mural in the Mount Vernon area of north Belfast

He feels he has been “hung out to dry” for doing his job.

Although information passed to CID by SB was used to prosecute Haggarty for a litany of sectarian terror offences – including five murders – allegations made by Haggarty against his former handlers have intensified a campaign to have the same detectives put on trial.

The former officer is adamant that despite the seemingly endless probes, questioning of his actions, and his arrest in 2006, no evidence of any wrong-doing has, or will be, found.

“I think it’s totally disgusting that I’ve been hung out to dry for doing nothing but my lawful duty. How can this be allowed to happen?” he told the News Letter.

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

“I have developed a stress-related chronic illness and been treated for dangerously high blood pressure,” he said.

Having been accepted by prosecutors in 2009 as a suitable candidate to become an ‘assisting offender,’ Haggarty, 46, was given a greatly reduced sentence in return to providing evidence against his former UVF associates, however, only one alleged UVF member has been charged as a result of this information.

The paramilitary killer had his 35-year sentence reduced to six-and-a-half years as part of the deal. The judge commented that Haggarty’s motivation for co-operating with prosecutors was “self-interest and pragmatism” rather than “to atone for his crimes”.

The outcome of the court proceedings has angered the families of the victims and some have now turned their attention to pressing for criminal charges against the Special Branch officers.

“If any agent had come to me and told me about a murder, then [the intended target] would still be alive,” the former detective, who does not wish to be identified, said.

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

Rather than living out his retirement plans, he has spent the best part of two decades retrieving information for Police Ombudsman (PONI) investigators, consulting legal representatives or worrying about how he will be able to fund his legal representation as he has been refused legal aid.

“All this for doing my job,” he said.

The SB supervisor, who dealt directly with Haggarty on a number of occasions, was in his mid-40s when the series of investigations into his actions began. He is now in his early 60s.

The probes began in 2001 following an article on the Mount Vernon UVF in a Sunday newspaper. Around 2002, the then police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan subsequently received a complaint from Raymond McCord regarding the UVF murder of his son Raymond jnr in 1997. Ms O’Loan then commenced an investigation, known as 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.

The former SB officer has also claimed that the ombudsman’s office attempted to ‘recruit’ a member of the Newtownabbey SB as an agent to pass information to PONI investigators.

A decision taken in October last year by the then DPP Barra McGrory – that Haggarty’s claims alone were not sufficient grounds to prosecute any officer – was then challenged by one of the victims’ families. This challenge resulted in a High Court hearing in Belfast last month, where it was confirmed that the PPS would now review that decision. That review is ongoing.

The former officer, who served in both the RUC and PSNI for a total of 25 years before retiring in 2004, claims the stress of living with the threat of serious charges against him is unbearable.

“I know the police have a policy of saying ‘we don’t pass any comment on issues around agents,’ but I am in the firing line and I have had no support from the PSNI whatsoever,” he said.

PSNI Senior Legal Advisor, Louise Crilly said: “While the Chief Constable has the discretion to reimburse legal costs, each case is considered on its merits. However, we do not comment on individual cases and no inference should be drawn from this.”

• The Police Ombudsman (PONI) has responded to the former Special Branch officers claims that the 17-year long investigation is a breach of his human rights.

The retired detective has also claimed that sending a large number of uniformed police officers to his home to effect his arrest was unnecessary and disproportionate.

He said his track record of presenting himself for interview, including interviews under caution, should have been taken into account before such an arrest operation was launched under the direction of the ombudsman.

However, a PONI spokesman said: “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.

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

“These complaints involve complex issues, and we have taken steps to consolidate and streamline our enquiries.

“We have completed the investigation of some of these complaints, while other enquiries remain ongoing.”

Commenting specifically on the ex-officer’s concern over the arrest operation, the ombudsman’s spokesman said: “Any arrests in relation to these enquiries have been necessary and conducted in a proportionate way, with police support when required.”

Responding to the allegation that PONI investigators had attempted to recruit one of the former detective’s Newtownabbey SB colleges as an informer early in the investigation, the PONI spokesman added: “The office has the capability under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to use covert human intelligence sources.”