Our liberal democratic dispensations have a darker side. Alongside the carrot there is a very big stick that comes down with great force on those deemed to be the ‘enemy’ by the political-military elite. Read books like Paxman’s ‘The English’ and there is a sense of a nation bound by cricket’s rules of fair play, a land of ‘cycling maids and long shadows, pigeon fanciers and red telephone boxes’, of a free and bold media unhampered by considerations other than pursuit of the truth.
However there is another tableau. The curtain lifted on the darker aspects of British life recently with the BBC Panorama programme on the MRF, the Military Reaction Force.
Soldiers from an undercover unit used by the British army in Northern Ireland killed unarmed civilians, former members have told BBC One’s Panorama….hree former members of the unit, who agreed to be interviewed on condition their identities were disguised, said they had posed as Belfast City Council road sweepers, dustmen and even “meths drinkers”, carrying out surveillance from street gutters.
But surveillance was just one part of their work.
One of the soldiers said they had also fired on suspected IRA members.
He described their mission as “to draw out the IRA and to minimise their activities… if they needed shooting, they’d be shot”.
Gerry Adams, writing in the Guardian (22 November 2013), observed that the MRF was a secret British army unit that operated with impunity. As Adams points out, the existence of the MRF has been known for some time, but it was supported by another unit, the Force Research Unit (FRU)
About the FRU
Martin Ingram ‘ the pseudonym of an ex-British Army intelligence officer turned whistle-blower – provided a behind-the-scenes look in his book Stakeknife, which takes its title from the code name of one particular informer, who the authors believes was Frederick Scappaticci. This agent was also referred to within the FRU as steak knife, Stake, Steak and Alfredo ‘ Italian for Freddie ‘ Scappaticci’s father being an Italian immigrant who arrived in Belfast in the 1920s. This agent was FRU’s ‘jewel in the crown’: ‘the difficult part for his handlers involved manoeuvring him into the prominent and influential role as second-in-command in the internal security unit’. Stakeknife became second-in-command of the IRA’s internal security unit, known as the ‘Nutting Squad’. Once agent Stakeknife was in place, the IRA effectively had no security. Another important account in the book is of agent Brian Nelson, planted by the FRU in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), mortal enemy of the IRA. . Ingram worked in Army intelligence from 1981-90, including spending seven years, from 1982-84 and 1987-90 working for the FRU. He quit in 1990 after deciding the truth would have to be told about the activities of intelligence agents in Ireland. The book documents how the FRU recruited agents and informers to infiltrate both the Provisionals (Catholic) and Loyalist (Protestant) paramilitaries. It provides graphic accounts of crimes, including murder, carried out by these agents under FRU oversight. There are descriptions of the turf wars between the FRU and the Royal Ulster Constabulary ‘ the latter always resentful of the FRU running an agent within loyalism ‘ and some of the connections built up by the paramilitaries with Libya and Apartheid South Africa.
The British Army’s dirty war in Northern Ireland has implications for communities now caught up in the post-September 11 dragnets. The 1980s are not that far away ‘ certainly the young officers blooded in those assignments are now at the top of Special Branch and MI5 ‘ much like the young inspector who led the horrific horse charges against the striking miners in 1984 climbed up the ranks to become Assistant Commissioner of the Met Police.
Ingram notes various routes of recruitment. Often people ‘just walked in off the street and volunteered their services’. Scappaticci was one such example. Others like Nelson were ex-Army, given an official discharge to continue other duties ‘ ‘a job that was paid for by British taxpayers ‘ setting up Catholics for murder’. Ingram offers other unique insights into the workings of the security agencies in winning over a potential recruit: ‘it is possible to artificially create a point of contact ‘ for instance, a target could be made to believe that he had won a prize in a draw and be invited to a local hotel to collect it. Other opportunities arose where a target was selling his house or car. A viewing would be arranged by the handler, posing as a prospective buyer. He would make a very attractive offer’if the target went along with the approach, even though there was obviously more to this than a genuine transaction, then he was hooked’.this method had a high success rate and was relatively easy and safe way of getting alongside the target’.
Ingram also provides an instructive explanation of intelligence data organisation: ‘A system of grading is used in the intelligence community when circulating information. The grading runs from A to F and from 1 to 6. A handler will mark the appropriate grading on information supplied to him by an agent or other source, so that the person reading the information can evaluate its reliability and intelligence significance. An A1 source is a fact, e.g. a known event. A B2 is the best category of source information. B indicates that the reliability of the source is good and 2 indicates ‘there is good collateral evidence to back it up’.where a piece of information is graded F6, it would mean that the source, F, could not be relied upon, either because of inexperience or because he had a track record of unreliability. The 6 would indicate to the reader that there was no collateral for the report and that there was a low probability of the information being true, or that it was not possible to accurately assess it’. Scappaticci/ Stakeknife produced high-grade intelligence, ‘much of it read at the highest levels of the political and security establishments’.
However these professional niceties belie a gruesome reality of blood on the pavement. Eased into his command position within the IRA’s ‘Nutting Squad’, Scappaticci/ Stakeknife was involved in about 40 murders. The book provides accounts of dozens of criminal acts carried out by the like of Stakeknife and Brian Nelson. They would be a source of weapons and house plans – Ingram introduces us to the term ‘jarked’ to describe how weapons are fitted with bugs or tracking devices. They would know about planned operations and their consequences. In order to bolster his ‘hard man image’ within the IRA, Stakeknife was allowed to interrogate and punish innocent men on charges of being ‘touts’ i.e. informers to the FRU or UDA. ‘It seems likely that Stakeknife’s army controllers in effect played God ‘ deciding who was to live, and who should die in order to protect what they perceived to be the more valuable role played by their man’ (The Guardian, 13 May 2003).
The FRU maintained the sectarian bigot Brian Nelson on its payroll, knowing full well his hatred of Catholics. At least one man, Gerry Higgins, would be alive today if Nelson had been reined in by his handler. Ingram is incredulous that ‘in later years, Nelson’s army handlers would express surprise that so many innocent non-combatants died as a result of his intelligence work’.
The academic journalist Roy Greenslade has noted that this book was scheduled for serialisation in every edition of the Sunday Times, but in the end only appeared in the Irish edition; Ingram was booked to appear on two Radio 4 programmes, Today and PM, but these interviews were pulled once the BBC became aware of a Ministry of Defence (MoD) injunction preventing him from talking about his army work. Channel 4 News also decided not to broadcast an interview for what it said were ‘editorial reasons’. The much vaunted freedom of the press in Britain clearly has its parameters and rules. ‘The MoD employs people whose only role in life is to make sure that information released to the media is controlled. For my part I believe genuine secrets deserve to be protected, acquiescence in murder does not’, writes the author.
The political-military elite remain uncomfortable with the full facts coming into the public domain. It is a well-entrenched dynamic: the FRU and RUC blocked an investigation by John Stalker, the deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, in the mid-1980s, and Army Intelligence today continues to impede the inquiry by the Commissioner for the Met Police, Sir John Stevens’. Ingram writes that his experiences provide ‘[it is] an insight into how low the British government had sunk in its quest to defeat paramilitarism and sectarianism’.
Such an abject fall was only possible because of an absence of transparency in the way Government sought to handle the Northern Ireland troubles. As we now know from other contexts, where there is lack of transparency there flows the abuse of power.