British State Collusion with Loyalist Death Squads in Northern Ireland

An Untold Story of Our Times

On 8th July 1981, on the Falls Road in Belfast, Nora McCabe stepped out of her house in her bedroom slippers to go to the shop. Almost immediately, she was shot dead by a plastic bullet, fired from a passing police jeep. At her inquest, one after another, the five police involved repeated the same story that there was a riot taking place and they had acted in self-defence. It looked like the inquest was going their way until suddenly the McCabe family’s lawyer, a young Pat Finucane, introduced a new witness – a Canadian cameraman who happened to be in the area at the time. The film was shown to the court, and revealed that the Falls Road that morning was deserted. It shows the jeep coming down the road, turning into Linden Street where Nora lived and it shows the puff of smoke from the gun that fired the lethal shot. There had been no riot, and Nora had been killed in cold blood.

If the rule of law had prevailed in Belfast at the time, one might expect a prosecution of the killers to have emerged, and for the officers to have been tried for perjury. Instead, the inquest was stopped, never to be reopened; the young solicitor’s assassination was arranged by a British agent; and the man in charge of the police in the landrover, Jimmy Crutchley, was given a medal and a promotion. “This is what happens”, Robert McClenaghan explains, “to the bad apples.”

Cases such as these are the tip of the iceberg. McClenaghan estimates that around 1100 people have been killed by loyalists as a result of collusion with the agencies of the British state. “In our opinion we could put what the British state has been doing for twenty or thirty years on a par with what happened in Chile or what happened in Argentina. It may not have been on the same numerical scale, but the policies were the same.”

Eight years ago, Robert and hundreds of other relatives of those murdered joined forces to create An Fhirinne, a united campaign to discover the truth about how and why their loved ones were killed; to discover, as they put it, “not just who pulled the trigger, but who pulled the strings”. An Fhirinne, which is Gaelic for “the truth”, now represents over 250 families. Their struggle has not been easy: “At the start we were dismissed as republican propaganda: the attitude was ‘how dare you try to assert that the British government could be involved in murdering its own citizens?’ But bits and pieces of evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, began to come out and it got to the point where the British couldn’t hold it back anymore.”
The result was the Stevens inquiry. After eleven years of investigations, Sir John Stevens, former head of the Metropolitan Police and “hardly a republican sympathiser”, concluded that collusion had indeed taken place. “From about a million pages of evidence” explains Robert, “he was only allowed to publish twenty. But those twenty were damning”. Stevens concluded that he had amassed enough evidence to mount 25 prosecutions – including against senior RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary – the police), special branch and British military intelligence personnel. He handed this evidence to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions). Years passed, until finally, in 2007 – four years after being handed the files – the DPP announced that there would be no prosecutions. The state institutions would protect their own, no matter how great the evidence of their crimes. As Robert put it; “this was the British state covering up the mass murder of its own citizens”.

State cover up of murder is something of which Robert has personal experience. On December 4th 1971, McGurks Bar was blown up by a UVF bomb, causing the biggest single loss of life of the ‘Troubles’ until the Omagh bombing. His grandfather was amongst the fifteen killed. At the time, he says: “we hadn’t a clue about media, about press statements or anything else, we just knew our grandfather was dead. He was blown up, at 75 years of age, and within hours he was being called a bomber in the media. The British army, the RUC, the unionist politicians were all issuing the statement that this was an IRA bomb which my grandfather and the others had been making when it exploded prematurely. You’ve no idea the impact it had on my grandmother or my father. It’s hard enough to deal with a death, especially a brutal death like murder. But then on top of that to be told lies by the police…”. Six years later, whilst being interrogated over an unrelated murder, a UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) member named Robert Campbell admitted to being the getaway driver for the bombing that day. Campbell had already been named as the culprit, along with four others, in an anonymous tip-off the previous year. “Now if you were in special branch, and you had a list of five and one of them confesses, you would think at the very least, you should go out and arrest the other four. You don’t have to watch CSI to work this out.” Even then, the official line continued, and although Robert Campbell was sent to prison, none of the others were even arrested.

In the early 1970s, this type of collusion – the institutions of state covering up loyalist killings – was the norm. What we now know is that both the RUC (the police) and the UDR (the army) were also arming the loyalist militias and providing them with intelligence: “This isn’t us whose saying this, this is a British government report that was unearthed in the public records at Kew. One document, declassified under the 30 year rule, shows that between 5 and 15% of the UDR were also members of the death squads of the UDA or the UVF, and that the biggest single source of weapons for the UDA and the UVF was the UDR.”

What Stevens’ inquiries had unearthed, however, was that by the mid-80s collusion had shifted from this type of informal (albeit widespread) collaboration amongst people on the ground to a crucial plank of British state policy. Loyalist death squads had effectively become integrated into the British chain of command.

Finding the fingerprints of Brian Nelson, a leading member of loyalist militia the UDA, on British army documents, Stevens’ team had Nelson arrested. During his time in prison, Nelson admitted he was a British agent, and that far from being placed in the UDA to disrupt its operations, he was in fact there to facilitate them. Nelson, it emerged, had been given access to army intelligence files to improve the UDA’s targeting and assassinations, and had been aided by MI5 in facilitating the import of a huge arms shipment in from apartheid South Africa in 1987. This haul, which included rocket launchers, fragmentation grenades, Browning pistols and over 200 AK47s, more than tripled the loyalists’ killing rate, from 71 over the six years prior to the shipment’s arrival, to 229 during the six years afterwards.

However, the idea that Nelson and his handlers were simply ‘bad apples’, out of the control of the higher military and political authorities, says Robert, is demolished by what happened after Nelson was arrested: “Two weeks away from his trial, there was an extraordinary, unbelievable meeting that took place here in Belfast. At the meeting was the British Prime Minister, John Major; the head of all the six county judges, Brian Hutton; Basil Kelly, who was due to be the trial judge; the Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew who later became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; the head of the DPP at the time, and the head of the RUC. They didn’t want Nelson to get into the dock and blow their cover about how all these murder gangs had been allowed to proceed. So they came up with a plea bargain that was put to Nelson: If he would plead guilty to lesser charges, they’d ensure he didn’t spend too long in prison”. The multiple murder charges against him were dropped, and instead he was given a ten year sentence for conspiracy in a court case that lasted less than a day. He served less than half this sentence, and was announced dead the day the Stevens Inquiry report was published. Robert finds this hard to believe: “My gut instinct is that he is in South Africa, or a British dependency where he feels safe and secure and he’s just got away with it. He might be dead and I might be wrong, but it was just too coincidental that on the exact same day as Stevens published his report that implicated him, this 4 line statement got released saying that he’s dead.”

Nelson’s handler was a man named Gordon Kerr, of the Forces Research Unit, established under Thatcher essentially to professionalise collusion. His subsequent career demolishes the ‘bad apple’ theory even further: “He actually left the north under the cloud of being a mass murderer and involved in all these killings – but then went on to become British military attaché in China! Stevens put in a request to interview Kerr, and was told he had moved from China and was now on operational duties. He was actually based in Basra, in Iraq. Do you understand the significance? See all the covert killings that were going on in Iraq? There was an incident in Basra where two British operatives were dressed up in Arab dress at a checkpoint, and the local police tried to stop them but they killed them. Then they were arrested and brought into the police station but a British tank came in and smashed down the walls to take them away. That was Kerr’s unit. So this is not only Belfast or the six counties that we’re talking about, this is transporting terror around the world and this is where they perfected their techniques.”

More evidence was unearthed by the 2007 report of the police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, into the killing of a young Protestant, Raymond MacCord jnr, by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force): “This case blew the lid off everything. She found that there was a UVF gang headed up by Mark Haddock which was responsible for almost 20 murders and he had his own special branch handlers who were using him and letting him do this. The first person he killed was a woman, a Catholic woman called Sharon McKenna. These people were being paid from the public purse – an allowance every week by their special branch handlers. And after he killed Sharon McKenna, he got an increase in the amount of money his handlers were paying him.” Shortly after releasing her report, O’Loan was replaced by a new ombudsman, Al Hutchinson – “in my opinion he is seen by the British government as a safe pair of hands, whose not going to rock the boat. He’s not measured up at all.” Last month, Hutchinson published a report exonerating the police involved in the McGurks case. “That was a brutal report. A loyalist bomb and for forty years they blamed the IRA, and they said that was a proper investigation. It’s another whitewash in our opinion; they didn’t even get the names right on the list of people killed.”

Nevertheless, the evidence of collusion continues to mount, and the British government has adopted ever more contorted positions to avoid it coming out. A number of key cases, including Finucane’s and that of another solicitor Rosemary Nelson, were raised by Sinn Fein as part of the political negotiations with the British government at the Weston Park talks in 2001. The British appointed Canadian former High Court judge Peter Cory to look into six specific cases (including two of alleged Irish state collusion with the IRA). As Robert puts it, “they thought he was going to come over and be a safe pair of hands; another Widgery”. But it was not to be. In 2003, he reported that there was enough evidence of collusion for separate inquiries to go ahead. “So the British government was in a dilemma. They weren’t expecting Cory to recommend inquiries in these six cases and they were now looking at the possibility of a Pat Finucane Inquiry running for months. Senior British army, police and politicians, including members of Maggie Thatcher’s cabinet could have been subpoenaed. So they were faced with a dilemma and what they did was change the law.” Until then, the relevant law was the 1921 Public Inquiries Act, which specified that any public inquiry would have an independent chairperson, who could pick their own panel, and all hearings would be held in public. Blair was to change all that: “They rushed through parliament a new inquiries act in 2005 which says that it is a British government minister who will now decide who the chairperson of any future inquiry is, a British government minister who will decide what evidence can be heard in public and what in private, as well as which witnesses. And when the inquiry’s finished hearing and comes to its conclusions, the same British government minister will now decide how much evidence will be given to the public and how much has to be redacted and held back for 30 years. So the government are now offering Pat Fincane’s family this truncated, almost impossible idea of an inquiry.” The family have, unsurprisingly, rejected this, fearing a whitewash.

That collusion was taking place, however, has never been doubted by republican communities, as it was manifestly obvious in their daily lives, as Robert explains: “It was common knowledge at the time. We had 30,000 British troops on our streets. Now, the British army’s just fought a war in Iraq and the highest they ever had there was 8000. So this was probably one of the highest militarised parts of the world. They might not have had 30,000 by the 1980s but don’t forget there were 11,000 RUC and 2 or 3000 UDR and the police reserve, all acting as back up to the British army, so it was a massively militarised society, covered with checkpoints and helicopters. And then they would suddenly disappear, and the area would be deadly silent; and every one of us used to say, ‘someone’s going to get killed tonight’. Because you knew once the checkpoints had disappeared, this was the death squads getting the green light to come in.”

Robert is like a walking encyclopaedia on these issues. The dates, the names, the places, roll off his tongue with ease. In the two and a half hours I spent with him, there is the basis for a book, never mind an article. Neither is what he is telling me hidden knowledge – it is public and openly available. And the enormity of it is staggering: “the biggest modern story of the British state” as he puts it: the state running death squads against its own citizens; and the personnel involved now doing the same thing around the rest of the world. And yet, “this story has never impacted in Britain. It’s amazing to me, we’re so close, we speak the same language, we travel back and forth…but there’s a glass wall there that we haven’t been able to penetrate.”

But then, the media’s servility towards British policy in Ireland is nothing new. Robert believes they too need to be brought to book: “You kill the people first of all, you shoot them dead and then you issue a statement saying he was a gunman or she was a nail-bomber. The BBC then reports the statement and the media just rolls out the story and blackens their names. So that’s the first thing that an Irish person reads the next morning in the Sun or the Daily Mail – it didn’t matter if it was a redtop or a broadsheet, Telegraph, Express, Guardian, Observer – by and large they all towed the line.”

“The idea of collusion is like a spider’s web. At one end you have the assassins who are provided with weapons, provided with information, and are then allowed to come into an area which has been full of military and is then cleared. The military are brought back to barracks, the death squad comes in, sledgehammers the door down, has a map of the house, goes up and does the killing and drives away. The police then arrive, and there is no proper investigation: no ballistics, no forensics – and no adequate prosecutions. In the case of John Stevens, he had twenty five files on some of the most senior police and army which he gives to the DPP on a plate. And they sat on it from 2003-2007. So that implicates then the DPP’s office, which implicates the whole of the legal and judicial system, not to mention the media. So if we are talking about collusion, we try to paint this picture of a spider’s web. Everybody, whether it’s MI5, RUC, special branch, police military intelligence, the civil servants, the media, the courts, the prosecution service, they’ve all at one point or another failed to do what they’re supposed to do.”

The answer? “We want some sort of independent international inquiry that’s independent of the British and Irish governments but will have the authority to subpoena witnesses. Not just republican, but loyalist or British cases as well. The British government try to portray this image to the world that they were peacekeepers trying to keep two warring factions apart, to stop the Catholics killing the Protestants and the Protestants killing the Catholics; instead of saying this was our colony and we were actively involved as combatants and participants on one side, namely the pro-British loyalist side. And what that meant in reality is that they armed the loyalists, they gave them information and then they let them loose on our community over a generational period and killed upwards of 1000 people. So they can’t then be the people that sit in judgement. We don’t want British judges coming over and bringing republicans and loyalists in, and saying ‘tut tut that shouldn’t have happened, now do you want to tell your story?’ And then the British state gets off scot-free.”

Dan Glazebrook writes for the Morning Star newspaper and is a member of the editorial board of OURAIM publications. Read other articles by Dan.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hayate said on August 20th, 2010 at 9:46am #

    “But then, the media’s servility towards British policy in Ireland is nothing new. Robert believes they too need to be brought to book: “You kill the people first of all, you shoot them dead and then you issue a statement saying he was a gunman or she was a nail-bomber. The BBC then reports the statement and the media just rolls out the story and blackens their names. So that’s the first thing that an Irish person reads the next morning in the Sun or the Daily Mail – it didn’t matter if it was a redtop or a broadsheet, Telegraph, Express, Guardian, Observer – by and large they all towed the line.”

    They always do.

  2. teafoe2 said on August 20th, 2010 at 11:20am #

    So what’s new? In the words of Her Majesty, “The Irish are pigs.”

    The only thing that’s more ludicrous than the US trying to pose as an “honest broker” between Izzy & the Palestinians is Her Madjusty’s Royal Thugocracy trying to pose as honest brokers between sides in

    the Six Counties still held in thrall
    as they have been since Cromwell et al

    by Her Majesty’s British Empire.

    Oh yeah, “the colonial mindset is dead in Europe”.

    “United Kingdom” my ass.

  3. MichaelKenny said on August 20th, 2010 at 12:31pm #

    Untold story? All of this has been common knowledge for years! Even in Britain! Indeed, it was mainly the mainstream British media that revealed it! I just wonder which “Morning Star” Mr Glazebrook works for. I hope it’s the one in Vernon, British Columbia, because if it’s the one in London, their news is about 20 years out of dtae!

  4. John Andrews said on August 21st, 2010 at 12:21am #

    Good piece Dan. Go write that book.