22 January 2006

Army sued over undercover Belfast death

Sunday Times

Liam Clarke and Allison Morris
January 22, 2006

THE family of an undercover soldier in the north shot dead by a colleague is suing the British Army for negligence. Sergeant Michael “Harry” White, a senior instructor with the army’s agent handling unit, was playing the role of a hostage when he was shot dead by a colleague attempting to “rescue” him in December 2001.

An inquest at the Belfast coroner’s court has been told that safety precautions recommended after a previous incident had not been implemented. Vital forensic evidence that could have identified the killer had inexplicably gone missing and one soldier who opened fire had attended an all-night drinking session before the exercise.

White was a member of the Joint Services Group (JSG), the unit formerly known as Force Research Unit (FRU), which handles undercover agents with the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries. The court was only told that White was a member of an unnamed undercover unit and colleagues gave evidence anonymously from behind screens.

The FRU has been at the centre of a number of scandals, including the “handling’” of Brian Nelson, the UDA’s head of intelligence, who was convicted on terrorism charges.

White’s killing took place at a secret special forces firing range know as “the Hollow” in Ballykinler army base in Northern Ireland. The Hollow is used for training exercises in which instructors can play the part of terrorists and hostage situations can be rehearsed.

In what is regarded as an attempt at a cover-up, it was initially suggested that White had been hit by a ricocheting bullet that had bounced off “something”. However Leo Rossi, a forensics expert, told the coroner’s court: “In my opinion the bullet struck point on, it had not been upset in flight.”

He added that the fatal bullet’s metal jacket and tip were not recovered during the post mortem. This made it impossible to establish the gun responsible for firing the shot that killed White. The absence of this evidence had made it impossible for a PSNI investigation to say with certainty which soldier fired the fatal shot.

“It is hard to find an innocent explanation for the total loss of this vital evidence, especially since it took place in a closed training facility within an army base,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP for Lagan Valley, who has been helping the White family, who live in his constituency. “I will continue to offer my support to the family in trying to get to the truth. There are very real issues here for the army about the circumstances that resulted in Mr White’s tragic death, not least the question of how soldiers who had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol were allowed out on a firing range the following morning using live ammunition. There are health and safety issues there that need to be examined.”

Soldiers who took part in the exercise gave evidence from behind screens, their identities protected by immunity certificates issued by John Reid, the British minister for defence.

One of them, referred to as Soldier W, denied being drunk on the range. He refused to answer questions on whether he had been drinking until 3am and had risen after four hours sleep in a befuddled state.

Douglas Hogg QC, the former British home office minister who represented White’s widow, Debbie, quoted a police interview in which Soldier W allegedly made just such an admission.

A colour sergeant, who had not taken part in the exercise, told the court he had been drinking with Solider W hours before the exercise. He said that he and W had been at a social event in a Belfast Army base where there was a free bar.

“A large number of drinks were taken at this time. I drank a lot of bottles of Miller and shorts,” he said. “We were matching drink for drink. I remember Soldier W leaving; I went to bed in a drunken stupor at around 3am. As far as I am concerned we were all in the same state: very, very drunk.”

The Ministry of Defence denied that Solider W was drunk, but the court heard that he had given the impression of being intoxicated to some of his colleagues. The inquest was told that despite the drinking binge Soldier W was woken in the morning, at around 7am, to attend the live round training exercise at Ballykinler.

Another witness, Soldier S, said Soldier W arrived at Ballykinler for the exercise in a dishevelled state. “He drove up in his car playing loud music, he had red eyes and his speech was slurred. I was not close enough to his car to say if he smelt of drink. But as he drove off I said to the rest of my team: ‘Did you see the state of him? He shouldn’t be here.’”

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