The Irresistible Rise of a Folk Hero

Gabrielle Cox

  • Stalker by John Stalker
    Harrap, 288 pp, £12.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 245 54616 2
  • Stalker: The Search for the Truth by Peter Taylor
    Faber, 231 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 571 14836 0

Nothing so exposes the levels of hypocrisy in our society as the Stalker case. This cause célèbre has turned an unknown policeman into a household symbol of integrity and innocence in a wicked world, and given him the kind of public attention associated with taxi or train-drivers who win Mastermind. Now his own long-heralded account of his experiences has been published.

John Stalker had been Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police for only two months when he was asked to conduct an investigation into matters arising out of three incidents in Northern Ireland, where Royal Ulster Constabulary officers had shot and killed six men, five of whom were undoubtedly unarmed. The incidents, happening as they did within the space of a month, led to widespread concern that the RUC was operating a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy. In two of the cases police officers were charged with murder, though in one case Sir John Hermon, Chief Constable of the RUC, had personally thrown out the recommendation of the investigating officer that a murder charge should be brought. It was pressure from Sir Barry Shaw, Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, which brought the cases to court.

In the course of the two murder trials and the trial of a survivor of the third incident, it emerged that in each case the police officers involved had been instructed by senior officers to conceal the true nature of the operations on which they had been engaged. They were given cover stories which made it look as if they were on routine patrols when in fact they were all on special operations mounted as a result of tip-offs by two informers. These stories were apparently intended to protect the informers, whose lives were deemed to be at risk.

All the police officers charged with murder were acquitted. In the first case the judge criticised the Crown for bringing the prosecution on ‘such tenuous evidence’ and praised the ‘courage and determination’ of the officers in bringing the three dead men to ‘the final court of justice’. In the second case the judge observed that policemen ‘are not required to be “supermen” and one does not use jewellers’ scales to measure what is reasonable in the circumstances.’

Apart from the outrage felt in many quarters at these acquittals and the remarks made by the judges, there was also widespread concern at the evidence which had emerged at the trials showing that senior officers had organised cover-ups. At the instigation of Sir Barry Shaw, Sir John Hermon appointed John Stalker to do three things: to investigate the circumstances surrounding the cover stories and the way in which the CID had conducted their investigations; to look into the way in which RUC officers had crossed the border into the Republic on the day of one of the shootings; and to look at the problem of acting on information received whilst protecting the identity of the informant.

John Stalker’s team was shocked by the fact that not only had cover stories been manufactured, but that the CID had investigated the shootings only cursorily, and had in fact had much of the ground cut away from under them by the Special Branch’s removal of officers and evidence from the scene. The Special Branch clearly ruled the roost, and was persistently obstructive of the enquiry. Finally, when it was established that a tape had been made of one of the shootings, via a bugging device, the Chief Constable engaged in a protracted, devious and at times almost farcical attempt to prevent John Stalker hearing the tape.

These events have now been widely reported and discussed and they are cause for the deepest concern, not least because the Director of Public Prosecutions has decided not to institute criminal proceedings against any of the officers who are alleged to have conspired to pervert the course of justice. The merit of John Stalker’s book – and the supreme irony, to which I shall return – is that he gives an insider’s view of the frustrations of gaining information from a powerful, non-accountable organisation which is determined to frustrate such enquiries.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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