BELFAST - Top officers in Northern Ireland's police force allowed Protestant paramilitary informers to carry out murders for more than a decade, a report by the British-ruled province's police ombudsman said today.
The report comes as nationalist party Sinn Fein prepares for a Jan. 28 conference to decide whether to back a reformed policing and justice system -- a key condition for restoration of a Protestant-Catholic power-sharing assembly.
The three-year inquiry found that Special Branch officers turned a blind eye to the criminal activities of a unit of the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in order to protect "agents" within its ranks.
Between 1991 and 2003 members of the Belfast-based UVF gang killed 10 people, including a Presbyterian minister and a Roman Catholic taxi driver, and were linked to a catalogue of other crimes including shootings, drug dealing and extortion.
At the same time police officers paid retainers to those suspected of the crimes, "babysat" them in interviews to ensure they did not incriminate themselves and destroyed evidence.
"It would be easy to blame the junior officers' conduct," Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan said in a statement. "However, they could not have operated as they did without the knowledge and support at the highest levels of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)."
The PSNI replaced the RUC in 2001 as part of policing reforms under a 1998 peace deal to end 30 years of bloodshed between majority Protestants who want to retain links with Britain and a Catholic minority in favour of a united Ireland.
The Protestant-dominated force was dogged by allegations of collusion with paramilitaries throughout the conflict, accusations that have been highlighted in several previous reports and that extended to the British security service, MI5.
O'Loan has sent a file to PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde naming senior Special Branch officers and their UVF informers but prosecutors have indicated charges will not be brought.
Missing documents had prevented officers being held to account, according to the report which began as an inquiry into the 1997 murder of 22-year-old Protestant Raymond McCord.
PSNI chief Orde, who took up his post in mid-2002, said the report made "shocking, disturbing and uncomfortable reading" and apologised to the families of those affected.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said the findings were of "the utmost gravity" and that he would be discussing them further with British counterpart Tony Blair.
A spokesman for Blair said the events were a matter for profound regret "and the prime minister shares that regret".