Castlereagh break-in

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The burglary known as the Castlereagh break-in took place at the headquarters of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in Castlereagh, Belfast on St Patrick's Day 2002.

Statewatch Bulletin reported on the break-in as follows:

Shortly after 10.00 pm on 17 March, three people entered Special Branch headquarters, overpowered the only police officer on duty in "Room 220" and left some 20-30 minutes later with a number of files and documents, and possibly computerised information. The incident happened at the notorious Castlereagh police complex which is not only home of the 800-strong Special Branch and the interrogation centre (closed in December 1999), but also housed the British Army’s Joint Support Group (JSG), formerly called the Force Research Unit (FRU). It has long been assumed that Castlereagh was one of the most secure police stations on these islands.[1]


In the week after the burglary, Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan announced an investigation to be headed by Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Wright, the most senior detective in Belfast. [2] Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid commissioned an inquiry by the former Permanent Secretary of the NIO Sir John Chilcot.[3]

Flanagan's retirement

Journalist Brian Rowan noted that the break-in happened just before Flanagan was due to retire:

The raid on Castlereagh happened as Sir Ronnie Flanagan was about to step off the policing stage in Northern Ireland and it was the talk of the place a week or so later on 25 March, when the security and political establishment gathered to say farewell to the outgoing Chief Constable.
In the grand setting of the Throne Room at Hillsborough Castle, Reid heaped praise on Flanagan. They were all there to hear his words: the most senior army officer in Northern Ireland at that time, Lieutenant General Alistair Irwin; the British Security Minister Jane Kennedy; Flanagan's deputy, Colin Cramphorn; the Head of Special Branch in Belfast Bill Lowry; and the tall chap in the grey suit, MI5's main man in Northern Ireland, its director and co-ordinator of intelligence, the man who had called New York those few days earlier with the new of the break-in.[4]

Police raids

Statewatch reported that the offices of the Pat Finucane Centre were raided during the investigation:

At 7.00 am on 30 March armed members of the PSNI forcibly entered the building in which the Pat Finucane Centre is based (the Pat Finucane Centre runs a major website on Northern Ireland policing controversies and can be found at The purpose allegedly was to search the offices of Tar Abhaile, on the floor above the PFC. A private flat on the ground floor was also entered. PFC, when they arrived at work at 9.00 am, were denied access to their office. They contacted two members of the management committee who were also denied access to the building on the grounds that they were “likely to interfere with the search”. Later that day it emerged that the offices of Cúnamh, a victims support group which has helped numerous families of those killed or wounded on Bloody Sunday, were also raided and personal and confidential information relating to the families were taken. Other raids were carried out in Belfast leading to the arrest of four men and one woman. One of those arrested was a civilian worker from a loyalist estate in East Belfast. A West Belfast Sinn Féin MLA member immediately condemned the arrests and raids as “ridiculous” and “highly” provocative. There were more arrests on 4 April and PSNI have threatened further raids.
Eight of the nine people detained were subsequently released. One man from the New Lodge area of Belfast was subsequently charged with possessing documents containing information which could be useful to terrorists planning or carry out an act of violence, contrary to the Terrorism Act 2000. For a couple of weeks, no details were given about the documents and police sources briefed that they were not linked to the Castlereagh break-in.[5]

The Guardian also highlighted a series of police raids that took place during the investigation:

In the weeks after the March 17 raid, the security services pointed the finger at republican paramilitaries, believing it was an audacious attempt to expose informants and embarrass the Police Service of Northern Ireland, formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Republicans were outraged when police and soldiers swooped on 12 homes and business premises in Belfast and Derry, arresting six people, including the former IRA hunger striker Raymond McCartney and Bobby Storey, whom security sources claim is the IRA's head of intelligence. [6]

Focus turns to IRA

The BBC's security correspondent reported on 19 April that the police investigation had initially focussed on the widely held theory of an inside job.

At first, we were told by police sources the break-in had all the appearance of an "inside job" as those involved had an "amazing degree of knowledge" about the Castlereagh building.
The intruders knew that room "two-twenty" had been re-located just a few days earlier because of refurbishment work at the complex and they felt comfortable walking the corridors of this police headquarters.
They must also have believed that their movements would not be recorded by the many cameras monitoring this building.

However, Rowan said this assessment had now changed, and as a result of several intelligence leads, it was suspected the burglary was an IRA operation:

  • They are interested in a number of mobile phones that were being used in west Belfast in the period leading up to the break-in and on the night of the robbery itself. The phones have since gone quiet.
  • Calls to a number of public telephone boxes in that part of the city also form part of the investigation.
  • Intelligence assessments lead the police to believe the stolen Special Branch documents were moved from Belfast to Londonderry and then across the border into the Republic of Ireland.
  • Detectives want to interview a former chef at the Castlereagh complex who has gone to live in the United States. He is understood to have been in the building on the day of the robbery though he no longer worked there.
  • And investigators are understood to be assessing the movements of a number of vehicles and people - including a prominent Belfast republican - in the days before the break in.
What they have uncovered so far has convinced the police that the IRA is involved. The difficulty will be to produce the evidence to prove it.
What they think they can prove is that the IRA is updating its intelligence gathering.
This assessment follows searches in republican areas after the Castlereagh break-in when files, including information on senior Tories and on army bases in Britain, were found. [7]

Larry Zaitschek

The chef mentioned by Rowan was subsequently identified as Larry Zaitschek:

None was charged in connection with the raid. Police are, however, seeking to extradite Larry Zaitschek, a chef who formerly worked at Castlereagh, from the United States.[8]

Rogue Special Branch officers

In June 2002, a rash of stories appeared suggesting that the possibility of PSNI Special Branch involvement was being reconsidered. A story in the Irish Independent reported:

Senior security service and British police sources now believe that the extraordinary break-in at the Castlereagh complex in east Belfast was an "inside job", undertaken by renegade special branch officers, possibly with the help of agents working for an undercover army unit.
They strongly suspect that the theft of sensitive documents on St Patrick's Day - a spectacular breach at one of the Northern Ireland's most fortified police bases - was not the work of Irish republican terrorists.[9]
Police in the North have also said they are seeking the extradition from the United States of a former Castlereagh chef who is alleged to have been in telephone contact with a man regarded by the special branch as the IRA's head of intelligence.
However, no evidence has yet emerged to back up an extradition bid and police raids on the home of the IRA suspect and other republican houses yielded only documents which were unrelated to the Castlereagh break-in.
There is now a growing view, according to anti-terrorist sources last night, that the break-in was more likely part of a campaign to inflict severe political damage on Sinn Fein.
The sources claim the campaign aimed to divert attention away from the Stevens inquiry which is due to report shortly on the alleged collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane 13 years ago.
Another theory is that certain special branch officers are worried about reforms in policing structures in the North - which will downgrade the supremacy of the special branch - and are determined to undermine those championing the changes.[10]

DPP report

On 5 September, Brian Rowan reported that the police case was about to be tested:

The initial report of the investigating team, which runs to more than 1,000 pages, has been completed and will be passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions next week.
Senior police sources in Northern Ireland are confident they can connect the chef to the break-in and to other intelligence gathering activities linked to the IRA.
He was in the Castlereagh complex on the day of the robbery even though he no longer worked there and returned to the United States soon after the break-in. [11]

More rogue officers

On 29 September, the Daily Telegraph, citing assembly sources, claimed that Sir John Chilcot's report would show that rogue Special branch officers had colluded with the IRA in order to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

The police investigation into the theft is running in parallel to an inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcott, a former Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office.
His report is expected to reveal that at least one serving officer and one retired officer offered the IRA the opportunity to get the information. Their motivation is believed to have been an attempt to undermine the political process because they knew the Provisionals would be found with the documents and blamed for their theft.
A source with knowledge of the Chilcott report said: "It shows that the IRA were up to their necks in it. The Provos carried out the raid but they were aided by rogue officers from Special Branch.
"These officers wanted to undermine the peace process because they are unhappy with the changes the force is undergoing and they wanted to get the IRA into trouble. The IRA could not look a gift horse in the mouth.[12]

Zaitschek case collapses

In July 2009, the Public Prosecution Service issued a statement saying that the case against Larry Zaitschek had been dropped:

"The PPS had previously confirmed that there had been sufficient evidence to prosecute Laurence Zaitschek should he be made amenable in Northern Ireland. All such decisions are kept under continuous review.
"After the original decision for prosecution had been taken, new information came to the attention of the PPS through the chief constable.
"The PPS concluded that a duty of disclosure to the defence arose in respect of this information. It took all possible steps in conjunction with police to make it available.
"However, the chief constable has now confirmed that he is not in a position to make this information available for the purposes of disclosure.
"In those circumstances, the PPS has concluded that the test for prosecution is no longer met as the disclosure obligations placed upon the prosecution cannot be discharged and a fair trial could not thereby be achieved."[13]

The Police Service of Northern Ireland also issued a statement:

"The PSNI has pursued a rigorous and thorough investigation into the events concerning the aggravated burglary at Castlereagh police station which occurred on March 17 2002.
"All materials and evidence gathered during the course of that investigation and known to the PSNI were properly presented or revealed to the Public Prosecution Service, who initially concluded that the test for prosecution was met.
"Recently, other material, which did not originate from the PSNI or the security and intelligence agencies, was drawn to the attention of the PSNI.
"This was relevant to the facts at issue and the PSNI agreed was such that its disclosure would be necessary in order for Mr Zaitschek to receive a fair trial.
"Despite the efforts of the PSNI, we are not in a position to make available all the relevant material to PPS for the purposes of disclosure.
"Consequently, the PPS have concluded that Mr Zaitschek could not receive a fair trial and PSNI are in agreement that a prosecution could not proceed in those circumstances."[14]


  1. Inside Castlereagh: Files stolen from Special Branch HQ, Statewatch Bulletin, June 2002, accessed 8 April 2002.
  2. Review into 'national security breach', BBC News, 19 March 2002.
  3. The riddle of the stolen files, by Kevin Connolly, BBC News, 20 March 2002.
  4. The Amed Peace: Life and Death After the Ceasefires, by Brian Rowan, Mainstream, 2004, p17.
  5. Inside Castlereagh: Files stolen from Special Branch HQ, Statewatch Bulletin, June 2002, accessed 8 April 2002.
  6. Castlereagh break-in an 'inside job' by Rosie Cowan, Richard Norton Taylor and Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, Saturday June 22 2002.
  7. Analysis: Story behind the break-in, by Brian Rowan, BBC News, 19 April 2002.
  8. Castlereagh break-in an 'inside job' by Rosie Cowan, Richard Norton Taylor and Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, Saturday June 22 2002.
  9. Castlereagh break-in an 'inside job' by Rosie Cowan, Richard Norton Taylor and Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, Saturday June 22 2002.
  10. Castlereagh break-in 'by rogue special branch officers', by Tom Brady, Irish Independent, 26 June 2002.
  11. Castlereagh break-in: Who was behind it?, by Brian Rowan, BBC News, 5 September 2002.
  12. 'Police helped IRA steal Special Branch secrets', by Thomas Harding, Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2002.
  13. Chef won't be prosecuted over Castlereagh break-in,, 3 July 2009.
  14. Chef won't be prosecuted over Castlereagh break-in,, 3 July 2009.