IN 2007 a PSNI civilian worker leaked PSNI files regarding nationalist citizens to his UVF mate. No PSNI line manager was held to account and the victims were treated with contempt and fought for over a decade in their applications for compensation. It was a case of plus ça change. 

In November 1988 UDA Quartermaster, and state agent Brian Nelson received state files which alleged that County Down man Loughlin Maginn was an IRA suspect. Nelson told the British Army’s Force Research Unit and RUC Special Branch that this information was in the UDA’s hands. Loughlin Maginn was murdered by the UDA on August 25, 1989. 34 years ago this month. 

In response to condemnation of the attack, the UDA gave BBC journalist Chris Moore copies of this leaked intelligence information as justification of the murder. What followed was a media storm, to which the UDA dug down and pasted montages of “IRA suspects”, clearly gleaned from intelligence documents, on to gable walls. 

This was the beginning of the uncovering of the long-denied policy of state collusion with loyalism. Sir John Stephens began the first of his three reports on collusion that year and the truth began to seep out. What we now know is that the RUC Special Branch, the British Army’s Force Research Unit and Security Service (MI5) used agents in all of the armed groups, but especially in loyalism, in an end game of conflict which saw men, women and children murdered with absolute state impunity. That murder machine was enabled by free-flowing information and files from the RUC to loyalism. Despite these revelations the official denial continues, and no-one from any state agency has been held to account. 

The PSNI was formed in the context of this impunity. This week it appears that PSNI policy to maintain the reputation of the RUC has stretched even to a continued disregard of data obligations. It follows that if intelligence data could be handed out to procure murder without accountability, a culture of data insecurity was and remains rife. 

But there is another PSNI standard when it comes to some data. No-one has fought bereaved families’ access to murder files in courts and investigations more than the PSNI. In 2019 it emerged that the PSNI told the Police Ombudsman that all files requested by his office regarding the Sean Graham's Bookmakers atrocity had been provided, only for families to alert the Ombudsman to the existence of further documents which had been withheld from him, as disclosed to them in their civil case. There was no PSNI accountability for this scandal. That no lessons were learned in 2019 tells us that, just as in 1989, there is little will to make progressive change.

Had the RUC’s and PSNI’s routine and well-known abuses of intelligence files been held to account, families might see longed-for human rights-based remedy. And lessons would have been learned. Modern data systems might be in place and the data breaches of the past months might have been prevented. Such lessons might also mean that the PSNI could become a human rights-compliant body worthy of public confidence, rather than finding itself at the heart of yet another scandal.

As it reaps what it has sown, the PSNI needs to take corporate responsibility for the impunity culture and actions that are leading to its own disgrace.