A potentially important piece of evidence of British participation in loyalist paramilitary terrorism in Northern Ireland has been discovered in a display case in the Imperial War Museum London.
A BBC panorama show has revealed that a VZ58 automatic assault gun, until recently held on display by the Museum, has been identified by investigators as a weapon used in the loyalist paramilitary attack on a bookmakers in south Belfast. On 5th February 1992, two gunmen entered Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road and gunned down five civilians, including a fifteen year old who died from his injuries in hospital.
The unsolved killings have long been suspected as a case of collusion by state forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabularly (RUC) and British Army military intelligence, with the paramilitary force that claimed the killing, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
Investigations by Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Stevens Inquiry III had discovered that, in 1989, RUC Special Branch had received a 5mm Browning handgun from an agent who operated in the UDA, only to return it to the group, supposedly in a deactivated state. However, the gun was then used in two further attacks which killed six people, including the five innocent civilians in Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road.
The other murder weapon, the VZ58 Czech-made assault gun was allegedly destroyed by the RUC. However, Darragh McIntyre in his BBC Panorama show reveals that the gun has been on display in the Imperial War Museum in London. Officers from Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman have reportedly taken possession of the weapon for tests.
The gun could directly connect British intelligence to the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings, as well as the murders of two Catholic men in 1988 to which the gun is linked. British military intelligence are known to have hired a UDA operative, Brian Nelson, to travel to South Africa in 1985 to meet an arms dealer. Two years later, in December 1987, a shipment of weapons, including a large quantity of VZ58s, arrived at Belfast.
British sources say that the shipment slipped through the radar of their surveillance. Whilst some of the weapons were recovered by the RUC, the rearmament intensified loyalist attacks. According to The Guardian, in the six years before the shipment, loyalists had killed around 70 people. In the subsequent six years around 230 were killed.
The VZ58 assault gun found at IWM is also linked to the 1988 murders of Seamus Morris and Peter Dolan by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), as well as the attempted murder of Gerard Burns in March of that year. The UDA were in possession of the weapon when their members carried out the Bookmakers killings before the RUC supposedly destroyed it.
As in a number of other cases, it is suspected that not only was at least one of the murder weapons procured with direct British assistance but that a British agent was amongst the murderers. One of prime suspects in the Bookmakers killings was never arrested or publicly identified, despite being known to intelligence.
In 2012, relatives of the six victims of the 1994 loyalist attack in Loughinisland, County Down, brought legal action against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) over collusion in the deaths. A VZ58 assault gun was used in the shootings and part of the families’ claim focuses on British involvement in arming the killers.
This year, families of more than 100 victims have brought a challenge to the chief constable of the PSNI in the courts. The High Court heard from a HET senior investigating officer that a draft report into collusion during the 1970s between state forces and loyalist paramilitary groups had been shelved without explanation.
The discovery of the gun at IWM could support such cases, as well as justify the re-opening of the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings case. The position of the victims’ families has also been strengthened by the legal victory last year that forced the handing over of intelligence files on informers by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman.
Amnesty International have called for an independent investigation into a “policy where the police, army and MI5 worked with illegal paramilitary groups, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of people.”