Remembered: WPC Yvonne Fletcher
By Mark Watts
Senior Whitehall figures are prepared to send the SAS to a terrorist crisis without the knowledge of police, a secret document reveals.
An extraordinary and highly confidential memo distributed to a select group of senior mandarins at the Home Office outlined the policy six months after the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher and the subsequent siege at the Libyan embassy in London 35 years ago to the day next Wednesday.
Under the policy, civil servants at the Home Office may oversee the sending in of the SAS to the scene of a terrorist or terrorist-type situation, as the memo puts it, “before the Police Commander has time to take fright at the idea of their arriving.”
The secret document was in a “debrief” file of papers on what officials described as the “wash-up” from the embassy siege. The Home Office had kept the file closed despite being more than 30 years old, and even withheld it from the National Archives.
The Home Office took just over a year to release part of the “debrief” file to the FOIA Centre after I filed a request for it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Roy Harrington, then head of F4 Division or police department at the Home Office, wrote a closely-typed memo of two-and-a-half pages that assessed replies from other government departments and agencies to a call across Whitehall for views on lessons learnt from what they called the “Libyan incident” and for suggestions to improve contingency plans.
Harrington, who previously ran the Home Office’s counter-terrorism division, stresses in the memo the importance of the role of the government liaison officer (GLO) to co-ordinate with police in a crisis like the siege at the Libyan embassy in 1984.
Appointed by the Home Office’s F4 Division, a GLO ensures co-ordination between government departments and agencies on the one hand and police on the other in such an episode. The GLO links the government’s crisis room at COBRA or COBR and the police commander at the scene.
In his memo to just three officials at the Home Office, Harrington explains that F4 Division has to ensure that the GLO is familiar with the specialist capabilities of the UK’s military units. GLOs “serve as the bridge between the police at the scene and the military experts in COBR,” he says.
A further role of F4 Division, he writes, is “to make sure that the SAS arrive unobtrusively on the scene before the Police Commander has time to take fright at the idea of their arriving. Once they are there, he will find that they are tactful and unobtrusive in their advice.”
The passage suggests that, with the approval of the Home Office, military or intelligence figures may decide to intervene in a crisis like the embassy siege, rather than await a police request to them for assistance.
Disclosure of the Harrington memo raises questions over who would really be in command of a comparable situation in future as Britain remains on high alert for terrorist attacks.
Last year, I revealed an unprecedented legal challenge over the refusal to prosecute a suspect in Yvonne Fletcher’s murder. But, at a secret hearing, the High Court blocked a move to force disclosure of the case files.
A former police officer, John Murray, who was standing alongside Yvonne Fletcher when she was shot, is seeking to sue the suspect for compensation for the impact on him, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The partly disclosed file provides a fascinating insight into how Whitehall responded to the test of its contingency plans by the killing of a young police officer and subsequent siege at the Libyan embassy in St James’s Square.
Officials in Whitehall and at Scotland Yard discussed whether the police should have a liaison officer attend COBRA meetings.
But Harrington squashed the idea, saying that it would undermine the role of GLOs.
Mark Watts (@MarkWatts_1) is the co-ordinator of the FOIA Centre.
Home Office ready to order SAS to terrorist crisis over police heads after embassy siege