Give PSNI cash to test 3,000 Troubles weapons, says former top officer

An RUC officer displays arms found in a drum under the kitchen of a Springfield Road house in west Belfast in 1987
An RUC officer displays arms found in a drum under the kitchen of a Springfield Road house in west Belfast in 1987

A former senior detective has urged that a significant budget be allocated to exploit a “treasure chest” of loyalist and republican weapons using the most up to date forensic techniques.

Ex-Det Ch Supt Norman Baxter made the comments after the PSNI revealed to the News Letter this week that it still holds 3000 Troubles era weapons – and that they may still provide opportunities for DNA examination.

The revelation came after persistent questioning by the News Letter over what had become of a “container load” of weapons that Forensic Service NI (FSNI) had boasted of holding for DNA testing during a 2006 visit by the Duke of York.

The sheer volume of the weapons and the admission of continued viability of DNA testing on them prompted calls this week for a public inquiry from one leading victims’ group.

But Mr Baxter said the revelations raised much wider investigative opportunities than DNA testing, adding that the scale of the hoard is “a monument to the scale and extent of the IRA/loyalist terrorist campaign and a treasure chest of wider forensic opportunities”.

He cautioned that DNA can be destroyed on firearms through heat or damp and that cross contamination can be a problem “on exposed surfaces”.

“However, in using weapons the terrorist may have shed a hair which got trapped in a crevice of the weapon, some skin may have got scraped on to a part of the weapon or even blood. There is also the opportunity to recover fibres and general ballistic information about the origins of the weapons, other incidents they were used in and often within weapon hides other items such as masks, gloves, wrapping materials, radios etc were stored and which should also have been preserved and now be available for DNA testing.”

He expected that all 3,000 weapons would have been tested for fingerprints and ballistic tests. “But I doubt if a full examination across the complete spectrum of forensic opportunities, using modern evidence recovery techniques, will have been conducted on each weapon and linked material.”

What is needed, he said, is “a significant budget” to examine the weapons and related exhibits, which he argued should be placed on the agenda in ongoing Stormont talks.

UUP MLA Doug Beattie described the 3,000 weapons held by the PSNI as “a massive arsenal by any standards”.

He added: “They potentially offer a host of opportunities to solve past crimes and make terrorists amenable via the courts; these weapons should all be tested and retested as new advances in DNA technology are made and ballistically to see when or where they have been used.

“This is exactly how we should be policing the past. It may well be that some Sinn Fein politicians who were previously members of the Provisional IRA may be uneasy but that is no excuse for not carrying these tests out.”

In 2006 FSNI told the Duke of York that it had the technology to screen out contaminating DNA from weapons and find suspects through familial DNA links. This week it confirmed it has the ability to screen out contaminant DNA and to take DNA from sweat which has seeped inside weapons.