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Friday, 19 April, 2002, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Analysis: Story behind the break-in
Castlereagh is the PSNI's Belfast headquarters
Castlereagh is the PSNI's Belfast headquarters
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By Brian Rowan
BBC Northern Ireland chief security correspondent
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It is the stuff you would expect to read in a spy thriller.

The scene is the Belfast headquarters of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and on a Sunday night in March - St Patrick's Day - the corridors of the complex at Castlereagh are quiet.

As the story unfolds, three men arrive at room "two-twenty" where 'Tommy' is the Special Branch officer on duty.

This is no ordinary office.

Behind its secure door many secrets are kept - the codenames of agents and the names of their handlers, an alphabetical index of Special Branch officers, their telephone numbers and a log of "addresses of interest" - the homes of many republicans and loyalists.

Colin Cramphorn: Acting chief constable
Colin Cramphorn: Involvement of the IRA is a major line of inquiry

Among them are the addresses of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly.

The homes too of other senior republicans such as Bobby Storey and Brian Keenan are included, as is the address of the loyalist assembly member David Ervine.

But that is just a flavour of what is listed - the information is much more detailed.

At just after 2200 GMT, the Special Branch man answers a knock on his door.

He is overpowered and, in what follows, the office is left bare.

Embarrassing

The secrets of the Special Branch have been stolen and all the thieves leave behind is the question: Who did it?

In Northern Ireland this is not the stuff of the spy thriller.

On 17 March it really happened, and a team of detectives headed by Chief Superintendent Phil Wright is now investigating Northern Ireland's most embarrassing security breach of the past 30 years.

A separate review, ordered by Secretary of State John Reid, is assessing what damage, if any, there has been to national security.

At first, we were told by police sources the break-in had all the appearance of an "inside job" as those involved had an "amazing degree of knowledge" about the Castlereagh building.

The intruders knew that room "two-twenty" had been re-located just a few days earlier because of refurbishment work at the complex and they felt comfortable walking the corridors of this police headquarters.


Detectives are interested in a number of mobile phones that were being used in west Belfast in the period leading up to the break-in

They must also have believed that their movements would not be recorded by the many cameras monitoring this building.

But then the security assessment changed - to one even more unthinkable. that the theft was the work of the IRA, aided by an insider.

They had breached security, assaulted a Special Branch officer and stolen their enemy's secrets from under their noses.

One security source described it as "an act of war" - a clear breach of the ceasefire the IRA claims to be observing.

But where is the proof to support the assessment?

At this point, Phil Wright's police team is still trying to convert intelligence information into evidence.

  • They are interested in a number of mobile phones that were being used in west Belfast in the period leading up to the break-in and on the night of the robbery itself. The phones have since gone quiet.

  • Calls to a number of public telephone boxes in that part of the city also form part of the investigation.

  • Intelligence assessments lead the police to believe the stolen Special Branch documents were moved from Belfast to Londonderry and then across the border into the Republic of Ireland.

  • Detectives want to interview a former chef at the Castlereagh complex who has gone to live in the United States. He is understood to have been in the building on the day of the robbery though he no longer worked there.

  • And investigators are understood to be assessing the movements of a number of vehicles and people - including a prominent Belfast republican - in the days before the break in.

    Quentin Davies: Conservative Northern Ireland Spokesperson
    Quentin Davies: Details are not included in the IRA intelligence files

    What they have uncovered so far has convinced the police that the IRA is involved. The difficulty will be to produce the evidence to prove it.

    What they think they can prove is that the IRA is updating its intelligence gathering.

    This assessment follows searches in republican areas after the Castlereagh break-in when files, including information on senior Tories and on army bases in Britain, were found.

    Some of the material discovered had been updated within the past few weeks and, according to security sources, it shows that IRA intelligence gathering is "right up to date".

    The Conservative Party's Northern Ireland spokesman, Quentin Davies, whose name is not on the list, was told of the find in a phone call from Secretary of State John Reid on Thursday night.

    On the Castlereagh robbery itself, republicans dismiss suggestions of IRA involvement as nonsense and say it is all part of an elaborate cover-up.

    One source told me: "People who are saying the IRA was responsible should be asked to put up or shut up."

    Reputations

    Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, whose home is logged among the "addresses of interest", is now on-the-record saying he is "absolutely satisfied that they (the IRA) are not involved".

    The IRA itself, through a leadership source, has also denied involvement - that denial coming on the day the second act of IRA decommissioning was confirmed.

    And there are reputations on the line too.


    We are still of the view that the Castlereagh raid is part of the internal machinations between the Special Branch and elements of the various British intelligence agencies which operate in the north

    Sinn Fein spokesperson

    Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness tackled UK Prime Minister Tony Blair about the Castlereagh break-in at a recent meeting in Downing Street.

    A Sinn Fein source told me: "Policing remains the single biggest issue in all of our discussions with the British Government, whether with John Reid or Tony Blair.

    "A crucial part of that debate is Special Branch, its functions and its role as a force within a force.

    "We are still of the view that the Castlereagh raid is part of the internal machinations between the Special Branch and elements of the various British intelligence agencies which operate in the north (Northern Ireland)."

    Two entirely conflicting assessments then from the two sides now locked in a very public battle for credibility in this most embarrassing of all security breaches.

    Already there have been twists in this Castlereagh tale and one gets the feeling that this real life thriller still has more to tell.

    Whatever the truth, the stakes are high with the reputations of the police service and the republican movement on the line.

    The final chapter, the last pages, have not yet been written.

  • See also:

    07 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
    Security upgrade a 'smokescreen'
    03 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
    US move in security breach inquiry
    20 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
    Police security breach review heads
    20 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
    Security breach inquiries 'damaging'
    20 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
    Informers: A dangerous assignment
    20 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
    The riddle of the stolen files
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