If you turn on British television on a weekday afternoon, chances are you'll see an elderly man and his dog Drummer advertising electric garage doors, double glazing, awnings, or conservatories. That man is retired police chief John Stalker, but what you may not realise from his grandfatherly appearance in the television commercials is that for a while in the mid 1980s he was one of the biggest threats to the British state, to the extent that he was framed for corruption and forced out of his job.
Stalker had a promising early career as a policeman, beginning in Manchester where he rose through the ranks to become deputy chief superintendent, serving in the CID, Serious Crime Squad, the Bomb Squad, and the Drugs Squad. Then in 1978 he became head of CID in Warwickshire, the nation's youngest detective chief superintendant. After that, he moved back to Manchester, to become deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, the biggest English police force after the Metropolitan Police in London.
However, in the 1980s in other parts of Britain law enforcement was a more complex and murky business, in particular in Northern Ireland. The IRA were launching terror attacks both in Ulster and on the British mainland, and conventional police tactics were not working; it was alleged that the Royal Ulster Constabulary were turning to other techniques. In November 1982, three IRA members, Gervaise McKerr, Eugene Toman, and Sean Burns, were shot dead by officers of the RUC's special support unit. Police claimed they had driven through a roadblock without stopping, but forensics showed that many of the 109 bullets fired into the car had been shot at close range after the vehicle had come to a halt. All three victims were unarmed. Two weeks later, undercover RUC officers, who had been staking out a hayshed believed to hold an arms cache, shot dead Michael Tighe, a 17 year old with no links to the IRA, and wounded Martin McAuley. Two more men were shot dead before the end of 1982, Rodney Carroll and Seamus Grew; both were members of the Irish National Liberation Army.
In response to these six deaths there were suspicions of an assassination program or "shoot to kill" policy; therefore a police inquiry was ordered, and as was usual in cases of suspected serious misconduct a senior police officer from a different force was brought in. This was how John Stalker got involved in the dangerous world of Northern Irish politics. Beginning in 1984, Stalker found much to be suspicious about. For instance, in the shooting of Michael Tighe the RUC refused to hand over audio tapes of the surveillance which would have proved whether police had shouted a warning before opening fire. In his interim report, Stalker was critical of John Hermon, then chief constable of the RUC, for his refusal to cooperate.
Stalker increasily came to believe that even though there was not a deliberate program of assassination, police were adopting a policy that was likely to result in deaths. He said:
The killings had a common feature; each left a strong impression that someone had led these men to their deaths. The circumstances of those killings pointed to a police inclination, if not policy, to shoot suspects dead without warning rather than to arrest them.1
However, Stalker was never able to complete his investigation. In 1986, he was briefly suspended from the police service, accused of associating with criminals and being an IRA sympathiser. It was alleged he had attended parties where members of Manchester's notorious "Quality Street gang" had been present; these allegations were soon disproved. Stalker's friend Kevin Taylor was subjected to a four-year investigation for fraud, which drove him into bankrupcy. Eventually Taylor was acquitted, and sued Manchester Police for malicious prosecution; they settled out of court, making him a payment of over one million pounds which was at the time the largest payment ever made by the police in a civil case. Thus both men were cleared on all charges, and they had little doubt that the allegations had no rationale other than to discredit Stalker and remove him from his investigations.
Stalker's investigation was completed by Colin Sampson, then chief constable of Yorkshire Police; his report has never been published. In 1988, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the attorney general, informed the House of Commons that there was evidence that members of the RUC had conspired to pervert the course of justice, but it would not be in the national interest to prosecute. However, it is still unknown whether there was any shoot-to-kill policy, despite a number of other inquiries into the war against terror in Northern Ireland. The Stevens Inquiry into the murder of lawyer Pat Finucane reported in 2003 and found evidence of security forces colluding with terrorists before and after his murder; Stevens also described widespread obstruction of his investigations. The Barron inquiry held by the Irish government into the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings reported in 2003 but was hampered by a lack of British cooperation. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday is underway at time of writing. But much of the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland remains untold, and there are still calls for a public inquiry into the shoot-to-kill allegations by the relatives of the deceased.
After three months' suspension, Stalker returned to work at Greater Manchester Police. However, he found himself being sidelined and unable to work alongside colleagues who had made charges against him. He resigned from the force in 1987. Since then, as well as his advertising work, he has written a big-selling autobiography, Stalker, presented television programs Crimestalker and Inside Crime, and written newspaper columns for the Sunday Times, Sunday Express, Observer, and Daily Telegraph. He also works as an after-dinner and motivational speaker.
In 1990 Yorkshire TV made a drama-documentary about the Stalker inquiry, called Shoot To Kill, with Jack Shepherd playing John Stalker; it was directed by Peter Kosminsky and written by Mick Eaton. Brian Cox played a character based on Stalker in Ken Loach's fictional film Hidden Agenda released the same year.
1John Stalker quoted in Anthony Jennings, Justice Under Fire: The Abuse of Civil Liberties in Northern Ireland, Pluto Press, 1988, p 113.
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http://www.guardian.co.uk/Northern_Ireland/Story/0,2763,614847,00.html (accessed December 27, 2003).
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http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/images/cinema/pettitt/pettitt00.htm (accessed December 27, 2003).
Relatives for Justice. "Gervaise McKerr". Relatives For Justice website.
http://www.relativesforjustice.com/victims/gervaise_mckerr.htm (accessed December 27, 2003).
The United Kingdom Parliament Select Committee On Home Affairs. Confidentiality of Police Settlements of Civil Claims. HMSO. 1998.
http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199798/cmselect/cmhaff/894/89403.htm (accessed December 27, 2003).