In the autumn of 1982 three policemen in Northern Ireland were killed by a landmine planted by the IRA. At once, the Royal Ulster Constabulary plotted their revenge. Acting on information provided by one of their informers in the IRA – who has been paid many, many thousands of pounds – they identified five Republicans who were said to have been responsible for the landmine, and a hay shed which was, according to the informer, used by the IRA to hoard weapons. There is a lot of evidence that the informer’s information was incorrect, and that he himself ‘set up’ the shed as a possible arms store by planting in it two old rifles, without ammunition.

The Special Branch of the RUC organised the assassinations of the five men – three of them were gunned down in one car, the other two in another. Two young men, one of whom had no connection whatever with the IRA or the Republican movement, were then shot in the shed. One of them was killed instantly, and the other was terribly wounded. Cover stories based on a completely fictional sequence of events pretending that the murdered men had defied the Police were prepared by Special Branch before the shootings and issued to the press immediately afterwards. The official pathologists stayed away. Much of the evidence of what really happened was destroyed. For instance, the cartridge cases from the police guns in one of the murders were collected up and taken away by the Police. A story circulated suggesting that they had been swept up in a priest’s cassock as he administered the last rites.

So crude were the murders and so bungled the cover-up that there was an outcry among the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. This led, eventually, to the prosecution of certain junior police officers involved in the shooting (though not of the Special Branch men who organised it). When the cases came to court, several policemen lied, on instructions from the Special Branch and the security services. The defendants were found not guilty of murder. Some were congratulated by the judge for bringing the IRA men to the ‘final court of justice’.

Not surprisingly, this ugly charade did not satisfy the spokesmen for the Catholic community. They demanded an independent inquiry. The British government of the day was struggling with yet another of its ‘initiatives’ to ‘bring the two communities in Northern Ireland together’, and a sop was needed to pacify the ‘moderate’ wing of the Catholic community – the Social and Democratic Labour Party, which had been losing ground at the ballot box to Sinn Fein. An inquiry was conjured up. It had to be an inquiry which appeared to be thorough and fair, but whose conclusions did nothing to disturb the forces of law and order: the Royal Ulster Constabulary, their Special Branch and, crucially, MI5.

There was a well-tried method for just such an inquiry: a call to senior officers of an ‘outside’ Police Force to conduct a secret investigation and issue a secret report. This has been the traditional manner in which police malpractice in Britain has been covered up for generations. In comes the ‘outside Police Force’. It sets up a long, thorough and fair inquiry. It interviews all possible witnesses, thoroughly and fairly. Then it reports that although there were one or two procedures that went a bit wrong, and perhaps even one or two junior police officers who acted in an over-enthusiastic manner, there was nothing fundamentally wrong about the way the Police conducted themselves.

For this case, which involved murder, deceit and perjury on a grand scale, the Police inquiry had to be on a grand scale too. No less a VIP than the Deputy Chief Constable of the biggest provincial Police Force in Britain – Greater Manchester – was called in to command it. John Stalker was an excellent choice. Nothing in his life had distinguished him as a subversive. It is true that his father had been a Labour man, and an admirer of the Daily Herald, but he himself had not shown any such dangerous symptoms. He was a highly competent detective, tough as nails when it came to dealing with race riots in Moss Side or even demonstrators against the Home Secretary. There was nothing ‘soft’ about his attitude to organisations like the National Council of Civil Liberties. He had nothing but contempt for the ‘Hard Left’ Manchester Council and their representatives on the Police Committee. He had been vetted (twice) by MI5, and drilled in the top school of police officers.

What was required of Mr Stalker and his team was summed up by a Belfast community leader, whom he quotes in the book he has published: ‘Get in and get out as quickly as you can. Tell the Government what they want to hear: that the RUC are a fine brave force.’ Very quickly, however, almost as soon as he got to Belfast, John Stalker started to ignore this advice. He interviewed hundreds of police officers, including some very senior ones, under caution. He found out exactly what had happened to the six dead men. He was shocked, not just by what he calls ‘the methods of a Central American assassination squad’, but by the immediate and consistent efforts of the Chief Constable of the RUC and his colleagues in the Special Branch to obstruct his inquiry. His central complaint, which he pursued for eighteen months, was that a tape-recording of what had happened before, during and after the murder in the hay shed was in the hands of the RUC, but was not made available to him.

He wrote an interim report and submitted it in September 1985. The report recommended the prosecution of a number of officers for conspiracy to murder and to obstruct the course of justice. Whether or not very much more senior officers should be prosecuted for these and other offences, he made clear, depended on whether or not he could get hold of the tape.

The report caused such a sensation in the RUC offices, where it was delivered, that the Chief Constable hung onto it for five months before he handed it over to the Director of Public Prosecutions. During those five months, the authorities (I am sorry to use that vague phrase, but the authorities are vague) did everything in their power to solve what had become for them ‘the Stalker problem’. On the one hand (the carrot), Stalker was advised by his Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Philip Myers, and his Chief Constable, James Anderton, to apply for a couple of Chief Constable’s jobs which happened to be vacant. They offered themselves as referees if he chose to do so. On the other (the stick), secret Police inquiries started into a Manchester Conservative businessman, Kevin Taylor, who had been John Stalker’s friend. Inquiries were discreet at first, but they were what Mr Stalker calls ‘a trawling operation’ to see whether there was any dirt on the Deputy Chief Constable which could be flung at him at a later date if he persisted in his obstinacy.

He made it absolutely plain that he intended to get his hands on the tape, once and for all. He cleared the matter with the Inspector of Constabulary, with MI5, with the Chief Constable of the RUC, and most importantly with the Director of Public Prosecutions. He arranged to go to Belfast to get the tape. The visit was postponed at the request of the Inspector of Constabulary. Then it was postponed again. Finally, three days before his visit, Stalker was told to take extra leave because certain allegations (unspecified) had been made about certain associations he had (unspecified) with certain people (unnamed) of dubious repute in the Manchester area.

He was promptly removed from the Belfast inquiry, and replaced by the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Mr Colin Sampson, who was also instructed to carry out a full investigation into Mr Stalker. Stalker’s association with Taylor, who had no criminal convictions, started as the main plank in Mr Sampson’s platform. Mr Sampson discovered that at one of Mr Taylor’s parties attended by Mr Stalker there had been some people with criminal convictions. One of them, whom Mr Stalker admitted knowing, had been convicted during the war, while a juvenile, of stealing two bags of potatoes; another of stealing a roll of sellotape valued at two pounds.

As this part of his inquiry ran rapidly into the dust, Mr Sampson turned in desperation to the use of police cars. He found that Mr Stalker used police cars rather less than most officers of his rank, but he did manage one or two slightly unlikely journeys in police cars. The total amount of petrol used on these was worth slightly less than six pounds. The more Mr Sampson (who for this purpose had postponed his investigations into murder, lying and perjury in the RUC) ‘looked into’ Mr Stalker, the more the awful and extraordinary truth became clear: he really didn’t have anything to hide. Nevertheless, Mr Sampson recommended that Stalker be suspended while the serious allegations about the bag of potatoes in 1944 and the six pounds’ worth of dubious petrol were more thoroughly investigated. All this piffle was enthusiastically endorsed by the Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, a brilliant lawyer called Clothier, and his deputy, a former Labour minister, Roland Moyle.

At the same time, a smear campaign was organised against Mr Stalker. Despite Stalker’s furious (and accurate) denials, the Daily Mail published a story saying that he was suspected of involvement with criminals. Panorama, which had originally questioned Stalker’s treatment, weighed in with another programme (by the same reporter, Peter Taylor) which had a very definite anti-Stalker bias. A prisoner called William McPhee gave a statement to the Guardian saying he had been approached in prison by two police officers (one with strong RUC connections) and offered lenient treatment if would deliver a sinister package to Stalker’s home. He refused. His statement was passed to the Police Complaints Authority, and nothing has been heard of it since.

But the smear campaign was not a success. Much of the media, including the Manchester Evening News, rallied to the Deputy Chief Constable. When the Manchester police Committee, which, unlike the Police Force, has some elected people in it, saw the Sampson report, they gave a groan of disgust and disbelief, chucked it into the rubbish bin and ordered Stalker’s immediate re-instatement.

Back in his office, however, he was snubbed by his boss, Chief Constable Anderton, a religious nut, unstable, petulant and fanatical, who worked closer and closer with his new appointees to the top posts in the Manchester CID – in particular, Peter Topping, a Freemason who once admitted to Stalker that, other things being equal, he preferred to work with colleagues who were Masons. The final blow fell when Topping, who had never conducted a murder investigation in his life, announced that, in the dead of winter, he was taking Myra Hindley to Saddleworth Moor in an attempt to find the bodies of children murdered and buried there more than twenty years previously. Of this grotesque and, in winter, utterly futile exercise, Stalker was not even informed. Yet he had been involved in the original Moors Murders inquiry, and, in Anderton’s absence, was theoretically in charge of the Police Force which undertook the search.

Even curiouser was the fact that John Stalker was kept off the Northern Ireland inquiry. He had been found guilty of nothing – he had been shown after ruthless investigation to be entirely clean. His inquiry in Northern Ireland was above reproach. Yet now, without any explanation, he was removed.

It seems to me that if Chief Constable Anderton or Chief Constable Hermon or Chief Constable Sampson want to hang onto a single shred of their reputation, they must sue – or resign. Police inspectors-general Sir Philip Myers and Sir Lawrence Byford must surely explain how they came to supervise this shambles. If the Chief Executive of Legal Services of MI5, Bernard Sheldon, wants to preserve the independence of MI5, he must sue or resign. If Sir Cecil Clothier or Roland Moyle are concerned for the impartiality of the Police Complaints Authority, they must sue or resign. If Tom King can explain why he, three times, misled the House of Commons about the Stalker affair, he should do so, or sue, or resign. If Chief Superintendent Topping does not prefer Masons as colleagues, he should sue.

If I guess right, however, there will be no writs and no resignations. All the murders, perjuries, lies, perversions of justice, disingenuousnesses, rudeness, callousness and plain filth which is unearthed here has had the desired result. As in Byron’s ‘Vision of Judgment’, the people in charge float once more to the top and stay there:

For all corrupted things are buoyed, like corks,
By their own rottenness.

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Vol. 10 No. 7 · 31 March 1988

SIR: You may have done a disservice to a proper understanding of the Stalker affair by counterpoising the Cox and Foot reviews as though in some way they contradicted each other (LRB, 3 March). They do not do so, in any important sense. Whether the Establishment drive to blacken Stalker’s name stemmed from a calculated conspiracy by the security services and the RUC (Stalker and Foot), or a convenient – for MI5 – chapter of accidental gossip emanating from police informers (Taylor and Cox), seems the least interesting aspect of the affair. While Gabrielle Cox is quite right to remind us of Stalker’s complicity in both the ‘Battle of Brittan’ cover-up in particular and the chronic rejection of democratic accountability by the Anderton-led Manchester Police in general, she fails to provide any plausible explanation of Stalker’s civil libertarian Damascus Road in Ulster and his terrier-like perseverance with RUC malpractice. It may have been, as Hermon seems to have suspected and feared, subliminal, ancestral, Catholic thirst for vengeance. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of police folklore: pious denials of roughing-up of students in Manchester were par for the policeman’s course, while the murder of Ulster innocents was another matter entirely. But Paul Foot is also crucially right to notice that what now makes Stalker some sort of folk hero is the way he matched blow for blow the devious ruthlessness of the English Establishment in his use of the media – to win game set and match in the end. Folk heroes are seldom saints but they sometimes grow wise in their old age. Now that John Stalker can see with crystal clarity the vicious and disloyal nature of the Establishment he served so long, it would be nice if he could, in his next book, track back to his earlier career and give us a really candid account of brutality, cover-ups and illegal telephone-tapping by the police in Greater Manchester. That would really worry the Establishment.

Christopher Price

Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988

SIR: Your issue of 3 March has the neatest face-off I have come across in years of attention to your lively journal: Cox, page 20, Foot page 21, of course. I vote, hands down, for Cox, in good part because Foot’s pieces in your review are always sure that the only hypocrites are on the other side. Cox does have the advantage in her direct sense of Stalker. It was more than a coincidence that he became the policeperson that he did.

B. Steinzor
Gothenburg, Sweden

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