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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 12:43 GMT
The murky world of informers
Police officers near to where William Stobie was shot dead
Crime scene: Police officers near to where William Stobie was shot dead
The killing of William Stobie highlights the dangerous world of security forces informers in Northern Ireland and how little safety there is for those who choose that route, writes BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani.

In Northern Ireland where paramilitaries regard loyalty to a cause as more important that anything else, there is no greater crime than to break an allegiance with your own people and turn police informer.

For decades the IRA has dispensed its own form of brutal summary justice to those deemed to be "touts".

Billy Stobie could be seen as a sacrificial lamb ... a lot of people stood to gain from his predicament

Journalist Ed Moloney
The loyalist way of dealing with informers has been no less violent.

But without a doubt, informers have been the crucial cog in the intelligence machine in Northern Ireland.

These men and women "turned" to work for the state are no less important today as the security forces seek to stay one step ahead of paramilitary organisations.

Complicated networks

In the early days of the Troubles, the security forces had very poor if virtually no intelligence of what was going on inside some of the paramilitary groups.

But by the 1990s, the security apparatus was arguably the most sophisticated in the world, even if its methods, when exposed, provoked outrage among some.

Informers in Northern Ireland often found themselves in the middle of an intricate security web, sometimes answering to RUC (now PSNI) detectives, sometimes to the force's own independently-organised Special Branch.

Eventually, the British Army established its own network in the shape of the ambiguously titled Force Research Unit.

Army and police handlers would spend months identifying potential informers.

Then the target would be groomed and slowly brought into the fold.

The most important informers to the security forces were those who were prepared to remain inside their organisations and supply a constant stream of information that may prevent bombings or shootings. The authorities believed, and still do, that one good agent on the inside is worth dozens on the outside. One of those recruited would eventually be William Stobie.

Supergrasses

In the early 1980s the security forces sought to make maximum capital out of informers through the extremely controversial "supergrass" system.

Some 30 supergrasses were recruited from the IRA, INLA and loyalist UVF. The RUC used their statements as the basis of charging more than 300 people with terrorist offences.

The system ultimately failed as almost half of the supergrasses retracted statements and many of those convicted were cleared on appeal.

While some of the supergrasses were promised a new life and immunity from prosecution, Republicans claimed that others were intimidated into turning informers.

The insiders

But it is the use of informers still inside paramilitary organisations that remains the most controversial.

William Stobie leaving a Belfast court
William Stobie: Saw himself as victim of Finucane affair
The role of these informers had led to persistent allegations from Nationalists of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries - not least in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

In the BBC series Brits, journalist Peter Taylor detailed how fine the line was between security forces running agents and abetting the operations or loyalist paramilitaries.

One of the army's key agents was Brian Nelson, a former soldier from Belfast. He became the UDA/UFF's head of intelligence, providing gunmen with the information they needed to identify targets.

The plan was to use Nelson to prevent the UFF killing ordinary Catholics and concentrate on targeting Republicans.

But allegations persist that not only did Nelson clearly know of planned operations, some warnings given to his handlers of planned killings went ignored.

Nelson's murky role between paramilitaries and aiding the law was discovered by a 1990 investigation into collusion and he was jailed on five counts of conspiracy to murder.

Far from bringing the affair to an end, allegations persist that some members of the security forces had crossed the line between protecting an agent from discovery and preventing a killing taking place.

Violent ends

The William Stobie affair shows that no matter what promises that the security forces can make to an informer at a time of their recruitment, they are perhaps never going to be safe.

Eamon Collins, IRA man-turned-informer
Eamon Collins: Battered to death by republicans
They are caught between the world of paramilitaries that they have betrayed and that of the security forces who may never had fully trusted their catch.

It's a dilemma that applies to informers from all sides.

In January 1999, former IRA man Eamon Collins became the most high-profile republican to be killed by former colleagues when he was battered to death in his hometown of Newry.

He had renounced violence, turned informer and wrote a book, Killing Rage, detailing the violence of the IRA. Despite death threats, he had chosen not to spend his life on the run.

Terrible price paid

Ultimately, the death of another informer leaves many more questions unanswered and makes it far more difficult to ever establish the role of these people and the security forces in fighting a hidden conflict.

Ed Maloney, the Northern Ireland journalist who first interviewed William Stobie 11 years ago, said that ultimately the UDA man-turned-informer had paid a terrible price for choosing to side with the authorities, no matter how unseemly that role may appear.

"Billy Stobie could be seen as a sacrificial lamb," he told the BBC. "A lot of people stood to gain from his predicament.

"He was picked out [for prosecution] because he was a small individual with not much power, someone who could be made a patsy for other people's mistakes in the Finucane affair."

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