Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The past is never dead. It’s not even past, William Faulkner said. The dark secrets of Northern Ireland’s dirty war seem more intent, year by year, on proving Faulkner’s maxim truer than many could ever have imagined.
It is forty three years since the now notorious Glennane Gang murdered three members of the Miami pop band in July 1975, two of the band survived–Stephen Travers and Des Lee. The Gang was made up of serving RUC (police) and UDR (British army) personnel, plus members of the UVF. The leader on the night, the infamous Robin ‘The Jackal’ Jackson, was at the time in command of the UVF’s mid Ulster Brigade–he was also an ex British army soldier. Journalist David McKittrick attributes as many as 50 killings to Jackson; some even more, others less. Making him one of Europe’s most lethal, and most secretive, serial killers of the late 20thcentury you’ve probably never heard of. The gang are said to be responsible for 120 murders. Including the murder of the Reavey brothers and members of the O’ Dowd family in January 1976. The following night the IRA murdered 10 innocent Protestants at Kingsmills, South Armagh-another sectarian obscenity in Ulster’s murder triangle.
Jackson was linked to the Miami Showband killings by the now defunct Historical Enquiries Team in their 2011 report on the 1975 massacre–Jackson’s finger prints were found on a homemade silencer of a Luger gun used in the attack. The report also stated that Jackson claimed he had been ‘tipped off’ while in custody in May 1976 by an RUC Detective Superintendent, and that he “…should clear as there was a wee job up the country that I would be done for and there was no way out of it for me”. But Jackson didn’t “clear” anywhere instead he went on to kill many more. Despite widespread rumours about Jackson’s killing career at the time and his virtual impunity from punishment, he remained practically untouched by the forces of law until his death in 1998-apart from a seven year conviction in January 1981, of which he served only two years and was released in May, 1983. That means if 50 murders is indeed the correct figure, he spent roughly, two weeks, per killing, in jail.
John Weir a former member of the RUC and member of the gang, who was convicted for murder in 1980, called him probably the “best operator” during the Troubles. In 1999 Weir made detailed allegations in an affidavit about security force collusion, including disturbing information about how Jackson and the Glennane gang’s murderous rampage was not only known of but also tolerated by the security forces. Weir’s allegations were regarded by the 2006 Cassel’s report, an independent panel of international lawyers commissioned by the Pat Finucane Centre, into collusion in the North as credible. Others found him a credible source too, including the BBC’s Spotlight.
The fundamental question though is: were Jackson and the Glennane gang not only tolerated but actively orchestrated by elements of the British intelligence & security apparatus (MI5, military intelligence, RUC special branch) as a proxy counter-terror gang.
For years it has been alleged that Jackson was a protected agent of the RUC’s Special Branch, and possibly military intelligence too. The 2003 Barron report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings quoting British army whistle blower Colin Wallace, said as much. The bombings killed 33 people and injured 300 in 1974, one of the largest terrorist outrages in post war Europe.
In his affidavit Weir implicated RUC Chief Inspector Harry Breen–who served as a sergeant in Newry and Banbridge in the 70s–as having direct knowledge of the Glenanne gang. More incredibly still, he claimed that Breen was supplying weapons to the gang through a far right loyalist organisation called Down Orange Welfare. To quote Weir: “Down Orange Welfare was using RUC officers in Newry RUC station – McBride, Breen, myself – and another RUC officer, Sergeant Monty Alexander from Forkhill RUC station – to supply weapons to the UVF in Portadown.”
Separately, in a 2015 documentary on collusion BBC journalist Daragh McIntyre claimed that, while discussing the Glenanne gang, Jackson was “protected by one of the most senior police men in Northern Ireland”.
If he was referring to Breen, and given the geography, timing and Weir’s claims, it is very plausible that he was, it is an extraordinary allegation worth stating again, clearly. Was one of the most notorious sectarian killers in the Troubles protected-as a strategic asset perhaps-by one of the most senior policemen in Northern Ireland?
Colin Wallace also seemed to think so: “Everything people have whispered about Robin Jackson for years was perfectly true. He was a hired gun. A professional assassin. He was responsible for more deaths in the North than any other person I knew. The Jackal killed people for a living. The State not only knew that he was doing it. Its servants encouraged him to kill its political opponents and protected him.”
Jackson enjoyed practical immunity from prosecution all through his killing years during the 70s and 80s. Why this was the case has not been fully answered, even over forty years later.
But more importantly, the deeper question is who or what was protecting, or directing, or encouraging, the senior police man?
As early as 1974 Colin Wallace quoted again in the Barron Report said that Jackson and other leading Mid-Ulster UVF members “…were working closely with SB (Special Branch) and Int. (Military Intelligence) at that time”. Journalist Paul Foot and Yorkshire TV’s 1993 documentary The Hidden Hand-The Forgotten Massacre both suggested convincingly that Jackson and his gang, with members of the Belfast UVF, perpetrated the Dublin & Monaghan Bombings from their Glenanne base committed a year before the Miami massacre. The final report into the bombings published in March 2004 signposted obliquely that, “The possibility that the involvement of such army or police officers was covered-up at a higher level cannot be ruled out; but it is unlikely that any such decision would ever have been committed to writing.”
As many have also pointed out, it is inconceivable that James Mitchell’s farm in Glenanne, South Armagh-the gang’s well known and notorious epicentre-would not be under constant surveillance given what was common knowledge about the gang at the time in security and intelligence circles. John Weir claimed that the house was constantly watched by both RUC special branch and military intelligence: “basically everybody knew what was going on there…military intelligence was more often in the house than I was.” Many of Weir’s extraordinary allegations have yet to be seriously refuted.
More generally, in 2006 Cormac Ó Dúlacháin, SC, council for Justice for the Forgotten summed up to an Oireachtas sub-committee on the Barron report the incestuous and deadly relationship between the security & intelligence forces and loyalists terrorists in Armagh in the mid 70s:
If one reflects on the time and looks back at the newspapers, Dáil reports and British parliament reports, one continuously finds major expressions of political concern about what was happening in Armagh. In some way, all of this never crossed the desk of senior commanders, whether it was civilian intelligence, RUC intelligence or military intelligence…When one takes all of the inquiries that were ongoing and the political concerns expressed, one has to come to the conclusion that people at a very high level knew what was going on, yet we find the most minimal accountability.
Unfortunately the Barron report was significantly handicapped from the beginning in its search for the truth. The British government are said to have over 65 thousand potentially relevant files related to the bombings, of which only a handful were ever handed over to the enquiry.
Writing of the murky, devious and labyrinth world of counter insurgency in the North, Wallace, in a letter dated August 1975, and printed in the Irish edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday, Dec 10th, 2006, stated that,”…it would appear that loyalist paramilitaries and Int/SB members have formed some sort of pseudo gangs in an attempt to get paramilitaries on both sides to kill each other, and at the same time, prevent any future political initiatives such as Sunningdale.”
Sunningdale was a tripartite proposal to establish an Assembly, an executive government with power sharing by nationalists and unionists, and a council of Ireland-made up of representatives from the Irish Republic. It was met by fury from Ulster loyalism and subsequently collapsed in 1974 as a result of the Ulster Council strike. The strike began on the 15thof May; the Dublin and Monaghan bombings were on the 17thof May, two days later.
Quoted in the Barron report, Wallace on the 14thof August, 1975 linked by name some of the most notorious loyalist terrorists in Armagh at the time to the bombings: “Some of those involved, the Youngs, the Jacksons, Mulholland, Hanna, Kerr and McConnell were working closely with SB and Int at the time.”
The Bona fides and credibility of Wallace and other whistleblowers, Fred Holroyd for instance, has been challenged and questioned, and lied about for years. Yet as the late journalist Liam Clarke said in the Belfast Telegraph in 2014 Wallace’s credibility has tended to gain more and more as his central allegations have been put under further scrutiny.
In a later letter, dated Sept 30th, 1975, Wallace wrote, “As you know, we have never been allowed to target either the breakaway UVF, nor the UFF during the past year…”
So, why weren’t they targeted?
Anyone familiar with General Frank Kitson and British counter-insurgency policies in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s would be aware of Wallace’s term “pseudo gangs.” Kitson was the army’s principal strategist in Belfast in 1972 and was the instigator of the Military Reaction Force (MRF)-a clandestine murder gang within the British army who were the subject of a BBC Panorama investigation in 2013. The investigation revealed that its members (off duty soldiers and turned “insurgents” in unmarked cars) admitted to drive-by shootings and murder and attempted murder of innocent catholic civilians in Belfast in the early 1970s. A former member told the BBC in 2013 that, “We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group”.
Kitson’s military doctrine argued at the time that the rule of law could and should be subverted to the aims & objectives of the military during counter-insurgencies: “…the law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal.” A propaganda tool in other words. More chillingly, he went on to say it should be used as, “…cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.” What he meant by “disposal” and “unwanted”, can, of course, be interpreted in many ways. Kenyans in the 1950s found out what these Orwellian abstractions meant in the 1950s during the Mau Mau rebellion: brutal detention conditions, systematic & horrific torture, and killing- a colonial dirty war (an “emergency” to give its imperial designation), described by Harvard’s Caroline Elkin as “Britain’s Gulag”.
But given what we now know about the dirty war in Northern Ireland, just as in Kenya, it isn’t too far a stretch to interpret Kitson’s clinical words as promoting state sponsored terrorism as a necessary counter-insurgency political and military strategy, in the ruthless pursuit of wider strategic and political aims.
The deliberate murder by state-licensed killing squads of non-combatant civilians evidently didn’t trouble Kitson too much. The Geneva Conventions were obviously seen a nuisance and something to be circumvented and ignored.
Kitson as other military strategists was fond of abstract metaphors. In his 1971 book, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, in chapter 3, borrowing from Mao Tse Tung, he wrote candidly of “polluting the waters” when and if a fish cannot be attacked directly by rod or not-the “fish” being the subversive.Kitson was advocating for asymmetrical warfare by the state long before the term became popular post 911, knowing that conventional armies were ineffective in unconventional low intensity conflicts against highly motivated guerrillas in “end of empire” violence.
How his blue print for polluting the waters-the host population and the host environment during insurgencies-was interpreted and implicated on the ground in places like South Armagh in the 1970s we might never fully know. Maybe he meant hearts and minds, or maybe he meant “adapting the operational intelligence” to new circumstances. Essentially Kitson was advocating the paramilitarisation of special units; “counter gangs” linked to the British army at the time to fight insurgency terrorism-auxiliary forces in effect. In the Northern Ireland they had willing collaborators in extreme loyalism. This wasn’t new policy. Similar clandestine counter gangs were used in other colonial arenas: Q patrols in Palestine and Cyprus and turned former Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya in the 1950s. These counter gangs were always under the control of Special Forces officers. Particularly in Mid Ulster & Belfast in the 70s, many victims would argue that they have suffered the impacts and consequences of Kitson’s abstract “pollution”.
No doubt a version has been applied and implemented in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewheretoo, in the 21st century’s perpetual, often privatised, imperial wars.
The Barron report also had its suspicions about “covert security operations” centred on Mid Ulster in the 1970s: “It was further suggested that some elements of the security forces may have been using loyalist paramilitaries as a “friendly guerilla force”, advising them on potential targets and assisting them with weapons and planning.”
Much of the above has been in the public record for years. It is readily available from open and online secondary sources. There is nothing particularly new discussed here.
Yet something very new, at least to the general public, came to light in released declassified state papers a few weeks ago that throws a fascinating light on this murky and troubling past all over again. The papers revealed that Charlie Haughey (Irish Prime Minister 1987-92) was warned in 1987 by the UVF that MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, wanted the loyalist organisation to assassinate him. Predictably this extraordinary and seemingly implausible story on the face of it, and its provenance, has resulted in some questioning whether it is real or not.
Nonetheless in a recent interview on Irish radio, Stephen Travers, a survivor of the Miami Massacre noted that the UVF claimed in a letter to have been given faulty detonators on bombs by MI5, “… as in the case of the Miami Showband”. In the interview Stephen said he was told by James O’ Neill, the RUC scene of crimes officer on the night of the bombing, that there was a 15 minute delay on the detonator of the bomb that blew up prematurely while it was being surreptitiously placed in the Miami’s minibus by the gang.
Stephen lay in the field that night for over forty minutes shot multiple times, drifting in and out of consciousness; Surrounded by his murdered band mates and bushes burning from the flames of the bomb.
Were the Glennane gang on this terrible night operating to a version of Kitson’s pseudo gang modus operandi? With a particularly hideous plan in mind to frame members of the band as terrorists? Stephen believes, as many others do, that the attack was a carefully planned political conspiracy concocted to frame the band when the bomb blew up just over the border, a few miles away in Co Louth. This would then have provided the pretext for forcing the Irish government of the time (Liam Cosgrove’s Fine Gael/Labour coalition) to check more stringently people crossing the border. The aim was to make the border more secure against IRA terrorism and subsequently frame the band as terrorists.
In 1991 Armagh based human rights campaigner Father Raymond Murray told Helsinki Watch that there were three types of killings by security forces during the Troubles. Firstly, killings by “trigger happy” bully boys who during harassment of civilians create the conditions in which killing happened. Second, when the RUC or the army passed on information to paramilitaries that led to killing known republicans, but often innocent civilians too. An example of “indirect” collusion and one long since admitted, for example in the Da Silva and Stevens Reports. Thirdly, and even more murkily; deliberate, professional and direct killing by either the SAS or other covert counter insurgency gangs linked to secretive military intelligence and/or MI5 for political and strategic aims, using: targeted assassinations, kidnappings, infiltration of “friendly “gangs (As Kitson advocated for) and, even, clandestine bombings. Not so much collusion-a fairly anodyne & nondescript phrase-but active collaboration between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, as Fred Holroyd revealed in the 1980s.
The third example is and probably always will be very difficult to prove conclusively. Such crimes are by their very nature covered up either by; destroying or conveniently losing official files; denying anything ever happened in the first place-institutional cover-up in other words; and concealment by a compliant and often credulous media and unquestioning civil service; and ignoring mounting evidence in the hope that it will go away.
But as legendary journalist Seymour Hersch said when asked whether Henry Kissinger “signed off” on the killing of Chilean general René Schneider in the 1970s: “orders” like that are not written down; it’s just not how it is done. But there is a paper trail of sorts, and the British state at least keeps a paper trail.
The key question however, in all of this, is: were some elements within the security & intelligence apparatus in the North at the time practising their very own domestic “strategy of tension?”
In Italy in the 1970s and 80s during the Cold War era far right wing terrorist gangs in conjunction with the Italian security services frequently used no warning bombs to terrorise innocent civilians, including the bombing of Bologna’s central train station that killed 85 people in 1980. The strategy was to blame communist terror groups for the outrages and engender fear and uncertainty-tension and anxiety-amongst the public. The rationale being that a frightened public would demand action against the perceived perpetrators of the violence.
Terrorist violence (state or otherwise) is a political tool, and a form of grotesque public theatre-terrorism as public spectacle. In 1975, security analyst Brian Jenkins correctly diagnosed terrorism as, “Violence for effect. Terrorists choreograph violence to achieve maximum publicity. Terrorism is theatre.” It is aimed at creating alarm in the feelings and emotions of the “watching” audience. The political logic may be deeply cynical and amoral, but it is never mindless.
The fallout of the violent act is then played out in the mass media with the aim of influencing and shaping the watching audience- mostly the general public’s attitudes and perceptions.
But “Operation Gladio” was a lot murkier even than that. In 1990 the conspiracy was exposed in the Italian parliament. The then prime minister Giulio Andreotti admitted that a secret army-so called “left Behinds”- had existed in Italy throughout the Cold War period. The left behinds were designed to fight the rise of the communists to power, or in the event of a Soviet invasion. The Italian communist party in the post war period commanded as much as 40% of the vote, particularly in the 1948 general election-an election in which the CIA through covert operations thwarted the coming to power of a left coalition. If that had have happened a “domino effect” was feared were many other Western European countries, principally France, could have “gone communist” as Robert McNamara & Lyndon Johnson’s would have it. Andreotti said that they were funded by NATO with links to the intelligence services in Italy. It subsequently transpired that secret armies existed in other European during the Cold War too. This too was later borne out by government enquiries and other investigations.
The claim has been made that these armies were or subsequently became secret terror cells full of far right subversive ideologues who were involved in violent acts to further the political aims-and maintain the status quo-of what has come to be known as the deep state, both in Italy, and elsewhere.
In the aims of the deep state in Italy the strategy of tension was deemed legitimate and necessary to fend off communism, even if, occasionally, reckless individuals or “groups within groups” got out of control.
The intelligence war during the Troubles in Ireland was cloaked, to quote Churchill-of all people-in a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Churchill knew about such things. The Special Operations Executive was set up at the beginning of WW2 by the British government to “[set] Europe ablaze by assisting resistance movements and carrying out subversive operations in enemy held territory” by practising the dark arts of sabotage, kidnaps, booby traps, and assassination in the assistance of groups resisting the Nazis, and later, in anticipation of a third world war, against the Soviets.
Could a similar counter insurgency strategy-with similar tactics- have happened in South Armagh and the surrounding counties, both north and south, in the 1970s? On the face of it, it seems credible and entirely plausible. Why wouldn’t a British intelligence apparatus with years of experience with the dark arts of counter insurgency employ a version of the same, even if it was within a domestic setting?
The niceties of the rule of law and democratic accountability to civil authorities could easily be suspended in a kind of pre-emptive fog of war; in the dark of night, outside of scrutiny, in defence of the realm. Where pro state subversive tactics advocated by Kitson and others could be employed-the end would always justify the means. Plausible deniability by officialdom could then cover a multitude of sins, including fending off meddlesome politicians and investigative journalists, and later the campaigning families of victims and indeed the victims themselves.
The question then becomes: how far outside the rule of law did these dirty tricks extend to, all the way to killing civilians as part of pawns in a larger strategic war game?
Were the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the Miami band murders part of a strategy of tension? Loosely, but interconnected, tactical nodes of tension set up to further strategic and political aims?
At any rate, it is now surely difficult to argue that Collusion was not widespread, (systematic, ad hoc or institutional or a mix of all three) between loyalist terrorists and the security forces given what is now a matter of public record. It is by now an accepted fact, if not always acceptable for some, for anyone paying serious attention and who doesn’t have an ideological or overtly political axe to grind.
But collusion is an ill-defined term. The concept also includes collaboration, complicity, conspiracy, subterfuge and deceit, and of course, most importantly of all, plausible deniability.Moreover, the vexed question of how high the “chain of command” for an operation goes, or approval for an operation, who sanctioned what in other words, will always be difficuilt to answer fully.
Kitson and all those who followed in the dirty war-on all sides- wouldn’t have worried too much about definitions or indeed moral consequences; they obviously believed that the end justifies the means-that much is clear.
In the mid-70s, at best a blind eye was turned while horrible acts of violence were committed by proxy gangs in the name of counter insurgency. At worst, the Glenanne gang were run by agents of the state as a counter gang in order to further political aims by dirty war tactics.
But the past’s toxic legacy is never dead. It will always seeps into the present. In 2015, Belfast solicitors KRW law issued proceedings against the British ministry of Defence and Kitson on behalf of the relatives of the relatives of Patrick Heenan, who was killed in 1973 by the UFF, a cover name for the UDA who were, incredibly, not banned at the time. The firm said that the core value of the action,“is to obtain truth and accountability for our clients as to the role of the British army and Frank Kitson in the counterinsurgency operation in the north of Ireland during the early part of the conflict, and the use of loyalist paramilitary gangs to contain the republican-nationalist threat through terror, manipulation of the rule of law, infiltration and subversion all core to the Kitson military of doctrine endorsed by the British army and the British government at the time.”
On the other hand, Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers a few years ago condemned the “pernicious counter-narrative’ that sought to ‘place the state at the heart of nearly every atrocity …” This is deliberately muddying, or even polluting, the waters-an exercise in perception management. There are no competing “narratives” or “counter-narratives” or even “multiple narratives” in this sense. But there is an objective reality upon which we can search for the truth however we then choose to interpret that truth. Anyhow, “national security” as a strategy to deflect and obscure the truth is beginning to wear thin.
Relativising versions of the past is intellectually dishonest-most “sides” in the North have been guilty of this. Finding the truth, it always seeps out at some point anyhow, is not that difficuilt-if we have enough information and evidence. At this point there is a lot of information with which to make reasoned & compelling assumptions, even reasoned conclusions about deadly serious collusion & collaboration during the Troubles.
No mechanism to deal with the heartbreaking legacy of the Troubles, never mind justice and truth,has yet to be firmly established, the unvarnished truth of it all is no doubt too squalid and may remain elusive for a long time–the British state is and always has been a deeply secretive state. This means that the toxic legacy of collusion and systemic collaboration -however unpalatable for some–is dripping into Northern Ireland’s present, drip by horrifying drip (see Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned about the Loughinisland massacre in 1994, for example). The past is never past. No matter how much some would want or need it to be.