Bid to have Special Branch/Army secret report from Troubles released to public fails
Among those suspected to have had links with Special Branch were loyalist paramilitaries involved in the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan
A new attempt to have a secret report into RUC Special Branch released publicly after 50 years has failed.
The 1973 report was written by serving MI5 officer Jack Morton at the height of the Troubles and looked at the relationship between the RUC’s intelligence department and the British Army.
However, no one outside of the police and security services has ever seen what was in the report.
Despite several Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, its findings remain a secret.
The latest FoI attempt has again failed to convince the authorities to release the report – with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) agreeing that the PSNI can keep the Morton document under lock and key.
Among those suspected to have had links with Special Branch were loyalist paramilitaries involved in the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan.
Thirty three people and an unborn child were killed when bombs exploded without warning in the border town and the Republic’s capital on May 17, 1974.
The deaths were the biggest loss of life in one day in the Troubles but no one has ever been charged in connection with the attacks.
It is alleged that members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) carried out the attacks with the knowledge and assistance of elements of British security and intelligence services in Northern Ireland.
An inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan attacks was carried out by former Irish Supreme Court judge Henry Barron.
Within its findings, the report, which was released in 2003, concluded: "A number of those suspected for the bombings were reliably said to have had relationships with British intelligence and/or RUC Special Branch officers."
It was in June 1973 that the RUC’s Chief Constable Graham Shillington accepted an offer from the Director General of the Security Service, Michael Hanley, for a senior MI5 officer to conduct a review of Special Branch and its functions.
As well as intelligence, the controversial police unit was also in charge of recruiting and managing informers.
In June 1973, the Troubles had been raging for several years and hundreds of people had been killed in the violence.
That month alone, some of the most horrific attacks took place.
On June 12, 1973, six Protestant civilians, aged between 60 and 76, were killed when a car-bomb exploded in the centre of Coleraine.
The attack was carried out by the IRA who had given an inadequate warning of the bomb.
Two weeks later, on June 26, Paddy Wilson, a leading SDLP politician, and his secretary Irene Andrews (29) were found stabbed to death in a quarry in Belfast.
They had been killed by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name for the Ulster Defence Association.
It was against this backdrop of bloodshed that Jack Morton carried out his report into the work of Special Branch.
Almost five decades on, a FoI request for an “unredacted copy” of the Morton report was submitted to the PSNI, which replaced the RUC in 2001, in January 2022.
The request claimed the report contained “advice on the relationship between the RUC and the Army” and would consider the structure and “function role” of Special Branch.
The PSNI responded in March 2022 to confirm it had a copy of the report but would not be releasing it under an exemption within FoI legislation which allows information to be withheld if it applies to intelligence operations.
The PSNI was subsequently asked to carry out an intern review of its decision, but this did not change the police stance on releasing the Morton report.
A complaint was then made to the ICO in May 2022.
The ICO had previously ruled in 2019 that the PSNI was allowed to keep the Morton report secret following an earlier FoI request for the document in 2017.
In its ruling on the latest attempt to have the report released, the ICO has again supported the PSNI’s reasons for not doing so.
In their complaint to the ICO, the person who made the latest FoI request highlighted a separate report into Special Branch which was carried out by another MI5 officer, Patrick Walker, in 1980.
The PSNI had also refused a FoI request for the Walker report to be released publicly, but had provided a redacted copy of the report for the purposes of an inquest.
The complainant argued the PSNI should also be able to disclose a redacted version of the Morton report.
However, in its latest ruling, the ICO said the Walker and Morton reports are “two entirely separate documents”.
“The fact that PSNI disclosed parts of the Walker Report does not mean that it can be required to disclose any part of the Morton Report,” the ICO report stated.
“The question for the Commissioner is whether PSNI is entitled to rely on the exemption claimed.
“The Commissioner cannot require PSNI to consider disclosing information that it is entitled to withhold under FOIA.”
The fact the Morton report was written 50 years ago failed to convince the ICO it should be released.
“The Commissioner acknowledges the complainant’s view that the Morton Report was nearly 49 years old at the time of the request,” the report stated.
“The passage of time may in some cases mean that information becomes less sensitive.
“However, in this case the Commissioner is satisfied that PSNI is entitled to rely on section 23(1), an absolute exemption.
“Having made this finding, the Commissioner cannot require PSNI to consider the age of the information, or the public interest in disclosure.”
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