Collusion! The British murder of Sam Marshall – Saoradh Nuacht

Britain’s Continuing Cover-Up of its Dirty War in Ireland – The Case of Sam Marshall (1990)

While there has been some information uncovered by the various mechanisms involved in re-examining collusion cases there is still a growing concern that they are at the same time acting to cover up the full extent and nature of collusion as state practice. This is especially so when these so-called ‘investigations’ involve the actions of covert British intelligence units and Special Forces. The HET investigation of the death of Sam Marshall is one such example.
Sam Marshall was a well-known republican activist, Sinn Féin member and former ‘blanket man’ from Lurgan, Co. Armagh. On 7 March 1990, he and two other republicans (Tony McCaughey and Colin Duffy) reported to Lurgan RUC station as part of bail conditions. This was the first occasion all three had signed at the same time and the family maintain the dates and times were known only to the men, their solicitors and the RUC. Minutes after leaving the RUC station two masked men (the UVF later claimed responsibility for the attack) emerged from a parked car and fired a total of 49 shots at the three men. Sam Marshall was wounded then killed as he lay on the ground. Tony McCaughey and Colin Duffy escaped uninjured. The family believe the attack aimed to kill all three in a pre-planned operation involving RUC Special Branch and British military intelligence. Allegations of British Crown Forces collusion emerged in the immediate aftermath focussing on the suspected leak of information of the bail signing and the alleged presence of covert military intelligence personnel and equipment. There were widespread calls for a full public inquiry. The initial RUC investigation, led by one of the RUC detectives (Alan Clegg) suspected of involvement in collusion, reported that “extensive police inquiries have failed to give any credence or standing to these spurious allegations [of collusion]”. However, in 1993, the same RUC detective inadvertently revealed to a US extradition hearing that a car in the vicinity at the time of the shooting was a surveillance vehicle belonging to a military intelligence unit; refusing to reveal any further details on the grounds of “national security”. Despite this, in January 1994 then British Conservative Minister Sir Patrick Mayhew insisted there was no surveillance in place at the time of Sam Marshall’s death.

Allegations and denials of collusion persisted. In pursuit of information, the family sought an inquest. Inquests into disputed killings involving British state agencies had long been the subject of severe criticism. Delays of many years, as well as limitations of their scope, remit and powers of investigation, have all been highlighted as profound flaws preventing open, full and transparent inquiry. Exemplifying the maze created by the mix of judicial and extra-judicial mechanisms that constitute the terrain of truth recovery in the 6 Counties, in 2008 the coroner ruled that he had no power to investigate collusion in the case of Sam Marshall and directed the family to approach both the HET and the PONI. They lodged a formal complaint with PONI soon after. No response was received until a generic letter informed them, almost four years later at the end of 2011, that no investigation had yet begun and (as with all historic cases) was now in abeyance. In May 2012 the Police Ombudsman indicated it was not in a position to investigate the case.

Allegations and denials of collusion persisted. In pursuit of information, the family sought an inquest. Inquests into disputed killings involving British state agencies had long been the subject of severe criticism. Delays of many years, as well as limitations of their scope, remit and powers of investigation, have all been highlighted as profound flaws preventing open, full and transparent inquiry. Exemplifying the maze created by the mix of judicial and extra-judicial mechanisms that constitute the terrain of truth recovery in the 6 Counties, in 2008 the coroner ruled that he had no power to investigate collusion in the case of Sam Marshall and directed the family to approach both the HET and the PONI. They lodged a formal complaint with PONI soon after. No response was received until a generic letter informed them, almost four years later at the end of 2011, that no investigation had yet begun and (as with all historic cases) was now in abeyance. In May 2012 the Police Ombudsman indicated it was not in a position to investigate the case.


The HET handed its initial report to the Marshall family in July 2010. Its contents demonstrate the contradictions inherent in the British state-run ‘truth’ management process. On the one hand, there were revealing details of the events surrounding Sam Marshall’s murder that, as far as the family, its lawyers and the Republican/Nationalist community were concerned, pointed to collusion. Yet, the report concluded the exact opposite, affirming that having “assessed all the investigative and intelligence material linked to Sam’s murder [the HET] found no evidence of collusion” nor were there any investigative opportunities that could be pursued. The report did confirm that, despite earlier “misleading” RUC statements, there was a major surveillance operation in place at the time of the shooting on a previously unimagined scale. This involved nine undercover British soldiers, one of whom directed movements from a remote location, with others located nearby in six cars and two soldiers following the three men closely behind on foot as they left the RUC station. Despite being as close as 20 yards from the shooting, close enough so that Tony McCaughey had to run past one soldier to escape, the two soldiers claimed they did not see the actual shootings and, despite being armed, were not in a position to intervene. Nor it appears did any of the surveillance vehicles act, even to provide support or protection to their own colleagues. The soldiers on foot admitted they “partially witnessed” the shooting but claimed at the time to have only seen the (UVF) gunmen making their (successful) escape, despite the close proximity of this extensive Crown force presence. The only subsequent convictions were of two men for stealing the car used in the attack.
Clearly, the HET investigation produced substantial new information. However, the family have contested the “no collusion” conclusion as well as the extent and nature of the HET investigation, raising some 200 questions in response. Despite revealing this extensive, sophisticated surveillance operation, none of the soldiers were re-interviewed. The operation was also undertaken at the behest of Special Branch, yet the whereabouts and activities of over eight Special Branch officers on the night of the shooting were not established, nor were they re-interviewed. Of an alleged 39 members of the British state forces involved in both the initial operation and the investigation, only four members of the RUC were re-interviewed, otherwise, the HET relied on the original statements provided to the RUC. There was also evidence of important forensic evidence being “lost”.
The family contends that the HET conclusions are not borne out by its own arguments. So, for example, the HET assert it is “possible that the two soldiers following the men may not have seen the shots fired”, yet the opposite may be equally true; they did see what happened. Crucially for the family the extent of upper echelon foreknowledge, involvement and/or decision-making within the RUC, Military, Intelligence and Political establishments in a case such as that of Sam Marshall is clearly beyond the scope and vision of the HET to investigate, as it is of the other so-called British state ‘truth mechanisms’. Having exhausted the options of both the PONI and the HET the Marshall family returned to the coroner’s court to again pursue an inquest. At a preliminary hearing in March 2012 the family’s legal representatives were first told no inquest could take place until after a PONI inquiry had been held; a process which, it was estimated by a PONI representative, could take another six years. Only after the PONI confirmed they would not be re-investigating the case did the Coroner concede in May 2012 that he would consider whether an inquest was required; some 22 years after the death of Sam Marshall.

Further delay in holding an inquest laid to the family seeking a judicial review. In September 2015, A member of the Marshall family sought a judicial review in the High court. Ms Hewitt (Sam’s sister) issued wide-ranging proceedings against the coroner and the Department of Justice over alleged failures in commencing a tribunal. She is also claiming the non-disclosure of documents by the Chief Constable and Ministry of Defence contributed to the delay. A further strand of the legal action centres on allegations that the Police Ombudsman has not probed a complaint lodged by the Marshall family back in 2008. In court, none of the respondents opposed Ms Hewitt’s application for leave to seek a judicial review. On that basis, Mr Justice Treacy confirmed the challenge will advance to a full hearing at a later stage. Proceedings were adjourned, however, pending the outcome of an appeal against the award of damages for delays in holding an inquest in a separate case. Outside court, Ms Hewitt’s solicitor claimed each of the public authorities involved in the application are guilty of unreasonable delay in progressing the inquest. Fearghal Shiels of Madden & Finucane said: “Some seven and a half years after a complaint was made to the Police Ombudsman there has been no tangible progress in investigating that complaint, which may of course, identify further evidence of state collusion in Sam’s murder which would be pertinent for the inquest to examine. “This case represents a further illustration that the current structure of the coronial system is incapable of providing bereaved families with access to a prompt and effective investigation.” The full Judicial Review remains yet to be heard.
More recently, in January 2016, the PONI announced that it would be investigating Sam Marshall’s murder as part of a “linked investigation” concerning collusion in 20 other murders around the same time frame and involving the same geographical area. He went on to state that it could take 3 to 4 years to conclude the overall investigation. The inquest is now set for a further extensive delay, awaiting the outcome of the PONI probe.
For many, the case of Sam Marshall, as in other cases, highlights that so-called ‘truth recovery’ in the 6 Counties fails to meet Article 2 and international human rights standards. As previously noted, Article 2 compliance is supposed to be a foundation of official truth recovery mechanisms in historic cases in the 6 Counties. Republicans and others knowledgeable of these issues would argue that these mechanisms continue the collusive practice of denial that has marked the administration of justice since the formation of the 6 County statelet. Sam Marshall’s death occurred just over a year after the killing of Pat Finucane and the Marshall family solicitor for many years was Rosemary Nelson. The case is also one of a number involving allegations of collusion by covert intelligence units of the British military and Special Branch in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If even some of such allegations were found to be true the evidence would point toward a campaign of targeted assassination in this period, many of known republicans or family members carried out by loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with the British state. Far from collusion in the case of Sam Marshall being seen as unique or an aberration from the norm, it would then need to be understood quite differently.

Fragmentation and compartmentalization have characterised the approach to processes in collusion cases in the 6 Counties. So too has a record of bureaucratic shifting of legislative, procedural and discursive boundaries. Redrafting laws, redefining terms, restructuring the processes and procedures of investigation, inquiry and institutional interactions, retrenchment and a return of the “old guard” have all been features of a drawn-out process of official British state management extending back over decades. It suggests an effort not only to maintain, or re-interpret, the denial of collusion, but to do so in large part through a series of discursive practices whereby British state crime is reduced to a politically neutralised set of managerial problems.
There have been regularly expressed demands for a comprehensive, inclusive and independent approach to truth recovery. In January 2009 a Government established Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past recommended the creation of a “Legacy Commission”, headed by an international figure to take over the work of the PONI and HET (CGP 2009). The Eames-Bradley Report (named after the joint chairs) was immediately and unceremoniously sidelined by the British Labour Government of the day. As with a 2006 British House of Commons Select Committee report on dealing with the past, a lack of consensus was cited as the grounds for this denial of a truth or legacy commission. The non-consensus argument was reiterated by Select Committee response to Eames-Bradley in 2010 and remains the dominant official discourse opposing an inclusive mechanism.

The official processes introduced have largely been responses to long-term campaigns by victims’ families and their supporters for truth and justice in collusion cases; usually in the face of massive, official, media and populist hostility. They continue to challenge the official narratives attempting to delimit and divert public attention from the full implications of the issue of collusion. As well as critically engaging with the PONI and HET, families have continued to pursue truth and justice through inquests, judicial reviews and civil cases and by taking cases to European courts and wider international opinion. Indeed, as official British state-sponsored approaches have been seen to block and limit access to the truth in collusion cases there has been something of a return to law in pursuit of processes based on Article 2 and international human rights standards.

Whether collusion should be understood as part of a pattern of policy and practice of the British state is one of the essential issues that any genuine truth recovery process needs to tackle. Certainly, it is crucial to the case of Sam Marshall as well as to others. It is apparent that the current ‘official’ truth recovery processes in place are not fit for purpose if exploring such questions is their purpose. This is not only because of any ideological or political reluctance to reveal the truth, although that must be considered as a factor, but also (and the two may not be entirely unconnected) because the structural and institutional forms that truth recovery has taken tend to work against the ability for patterns of state action to be systematically explored. Alongside the undoubted benefit of providing some important information, the various truth recovery mechanisms also evidence a record of evasion, denial and dubious practice. It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that they have formed not so much a mosaic of paths mapping a way through to the truth about collusion, as a maze managing what truth can and cannot be told. Because of these official truth recovery processes, rather than in spite of them, the issue of collusion continues to occupy that zone of indeterminacy, hovering on the threshold of the juridical, that some have identified it as being crucial to a critical understanding of the state itself. Fighting for the truth about British State involvement in extra-judicial killings and collusion during the conflict in the North of Ireland is of continued importance both because it aims to reveal what was done in the past and tells us of the nature of state power now.

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