The Mull of Kintyre Disaster: Security forces suffer incalculable loss : David McKittrick assesses the damage inflicted on anti-terrorist agencies in Northern Ireland

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The Independent Online
THE AUTHORITIES yesterday made no attempt to play down the scale of the loss suffered by the security establishment in the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash, with the RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley describing its effect as 'catastrophic'.

Assassinating even one of those who died on the Scottish hillside would have been a significant coup for the IRA; yesterday everyone was still struggling to come to terms with the effect that no fewer than 25 key security personnel had been killed.

The IRA may well consider that its activities were indirectly responsible for the incident, since it is clear that a Chinook helicopter was chosen for the journey because, ironically, it was regarded as the best way of protecting the 25 officers from terrorist attack.

Shock-waves were still pulsing through the system yesterday. Even the normally imperturbable chief press officer at the Northern Ireland Office had a tremor in his voice as he introduced Sir Patrick Mayhew and security chiefs to the media. Once the initial wave of grief at the human tragedy has subsided, the authorities face the task of quickly finding replacements for the 25 officers. This process will in itself shake up the system even more, as deputies move up and replacements for them must in turn be found.

One of the features of the security apparatus is that responsibility is divided among so many different agencies, principally the RUC, army, MI5 and the Northern Ireland Office.

What is so damaging about the tragedy is that all of these departments have lost senior personnel. In addition, many of those killed have over the years built up useful relationships with people from other agencies, to the point where co-ordination among them now seems to be relatively free of friction. These valuable personal relationships have now been lost.

The RUC Special Branch may well be hardest-hit, having lost the assistant chief constable who headed the department, two detective chief superintendents and four superintendents. These included the head of the Belfast region and his deputy, and the head of the force's covert surveillance units.

Assistant Chief Constable Brian Fitzsimons was in any event due to retire from his post this summer, to take up a position as head of security with a local bank, but the deaths of the other officers collectively amount to a grievous loss of experience and expertise in this highly specialised field, particularly since the RUC provides a large element of continuity, whereas army and MI5 officers tend to complete tours of duty and then be posted abroad.

The Special Branch takes the lead in the covert war against the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups, and will thus suffer severely in terms of morale and leadership. It is believed, however, that one or two detective chief superintendents remain in the Branch, and one of these will presumably be promoted as its acting head.

The army's loss is more difficult to evaluate, since fewer details have been released by military sources. Officers lack the continuity of their police counterparts, but over the years many officers have returned three times or more to Northern Ireland, building up significant local knowledge.

It is also difficult to assess how damaging is the loss of those described by Sir Patrick as 'six civilian security specialists working in the NIO'. Mr Major, in his tribute, spoke of people working for 'the NIO and other departments', which may well be a reference to MI5. Sir Patrick declined to clarify this point, saying: 'They were security agents, security specialists working in the NIO. Specialists is the word which I wish to use.' Reports in Belfast suggested four or five of those who died were associated with MI5.

MI5 is assumed to have a large pool of personnel, many with previous Belfast experience, who could be drafted in at short notice to fill these vacant posts. But again a large amount of expertise, as well as human lives, has been lost in an incident which will be regarded as the gravest blow imaginable to the security establishment.