Belfast's Special Branch revamp 'not thorough'

The Special Branch in Northern Ireland will today land in yet another controversy when a major official report says plans for its restructuring have not been fulfilled.

Reliable sources say the report of the Government-appointed Oversight Commissioner will criticise the lack of Special Branch reorganisation as envisaged.

It will also criticise progress in introducing human rights measures into the Police Service of Northern Ireland. These will be highly unwelcome to the authorities, given that the Special Branch has been embroiled in a series of controversies in recent times.

The report is the work of Professor Tom Constantine, among the foremost experts in the United States on policing, who has to report on the process of sweeping changes.

This report, his fourth, will be the first in which he has criticised the authorities. He commends some aspects of policing, in particular the setting up of the new Policing Board, but his criticisms of Special Branch and human rights will draw much political attention.

The Branch was heavily criticised by the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, for its performance during the RUC investigation into the 1998 Omagh bombing, when 29 people were killed.

The report will also say not enough has been done to meet the recommendation that the Branch should keep local police commanders informed about security activities in their areas. Last month the Special Branch's Belfast headquarters were raided by intruders who made off with sensitive security material.

More recently, some in authority have said they are convinced that senior policemen are working against the peace process. They believe a number of officers have been planting exaggerated and distorted newspaper stories with the aim of disrupting the process.

This belief, which exists at the highest levels, is of particular concern to the authorities in that it has produced an air of possible impending crisis in the peace process.

The Oversight Commissioner post was established as a recommendation of the 1999 Patten report on policing. The report said that both serving and retired police officers described it as "a force within a force".

The report said the Branch's size, at more than 800 officers, was unhealthy and unjustified. It said its size should be reduced and combined with the CID.

The report also said there should be much more movement between the Branch and other parts of the force. Professor Constantine says this recommendation has not been fully implemented.

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