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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 12:41 GMT
Informers: A dangerous assignment
Files were stolen from Castlereagh police complex
Files were stolen from Castlereagh police complex
The theft of files from an office storing security information about Northern Ireland has led to fears that intelligence gathering - through informants - could be compromised. BBC News Online looks at their role.

In Northern Ireland, paramilitaries regard loyalty to a cause to be of the utmost importance.

So there is no greater crime than to break an allegiance with your own people and turn security force informer.

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

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

But informers have been the crucial cog in the intelligence machine in Northern Ireland as the security forces try to stay one step ahead of the paramilitaries.

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.

William Stobie leaving a Belfast court
William Stobie: Murdered by loyalists

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, mentioned by some commentators in relation to the Castlereagh security breach.

Army and police handlers would spend months identifying potential informers who would then be groomed and slowly brought into the fold.

The most important informers were those who were prepared to remain inside their organisations and supply a constant stream of information which could prevent bombings or shootings.

The authorities believed, and still do, that "one good agent on the inside is worth dozens on the outside".

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.

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

The role of these informers had led to persistent allegations from nationalists of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

Eamon Collins, IRA man-turned-informer
Eamon Collins: Battered to death by republicans

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 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.

Battered

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.

Informers 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.

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.

William Stobie, a self-confessed former loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) quartermaster, turned informer, was murdered last December.

The loyalist Red Hand Defenders, a cover name used by the UDA/UFF and the Loyalist Volunteer Force, said it shot Stobie because of "crimes against the loyalist community".


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See also:

12 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Loyalist group 'killed Stobie'
12 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
The story of an RUC informer
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