The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Forbidden Fruit

An Interview in 3 parts

Part One: Forbidden Fruit
Part Two: Out From the Shadows
Part Three:
Political Policing

Anthony McIntyre • 11 July 2004

Ever since my early teenage years the RUC Special Branch represented something sinister. When the Ardoyne IRA shot dead a Special Branch inspector, Cecil Patterson, in February 1971, many nationalist adults were quick to commend the organisation in a way they had refrained from doing when two members of the RUC had been killed in a booby-trap bomb in Crossmaglen the previous September. Listening to them, I formed the view that something malevolent which had preyed on the nationalist community had been neutralised. At 13 it never crossed my mind that it was anything other than proper to attack and kill the police. It seemed a natural redress, repaying in kind that which the police had been inflicting on nationalists since August 1969. An attitude reinforced when lurid tales of torture began to seep out of Palace Barracks and through the warrens of Belfast streets in the wake of internment’s introduction in August 1971.

From that point on, the name Harry Taylor buzzed round nationalist Belfast. When we talked about him, in the way that those fresh into teenage life do, it was with trepidation. He replaced the mummy that supposedly roamed a house in Donegall Pass, as the new demonic figure, satisfying some existential need to experience the excitement of a fright. 'He pulls your teeth out with pliers', or 'there are chopped-off fingers thrown into your cell' were the constants in the torture typologies we constructed to detail the activity we believed Harry Taylor to be involved in. That few detainees seemed to emerge from interrogation centres minus teeth, and certainly none without their fingers, served not in the least to dampen our enthusiasm for tales from the crypt.

When I eventually met the man who introduced himself as 'Harry Taylor, Special Branch' in 1974 and again in 1976, I felt proud but not surprised to have passed the test. To fail was not an option. Twice he asked me to disclose the whereabouts of IRA weaponry which he promised to move discretely with no suspicion falling on me. Twice I sneeringly told him to clear off. The gallows seemed a better option in my worldview. On each occasion I went to prison. I often wondered over the years how many others he had approached with a similar offer and met with success. Quite a few, it seems, if press reports on the extent to which the IRA was penetrated are true.

Throughout the course of the IRA's war against an ever-widening array of 'legitimate targets', success against the Special Branch was considered a considerable bonus. When two of its officers died in the Liverpool Bar in Belfast docklands in 1987, the republican wings in the H-Blocks were flush with a sense of the triumphal. It was felt that the IRA could hit the RUC where it really hurt. The animosity within our ranks towards the 'Branch' was rooted in the role it played in monitoring our organisation's activities. Behind every RUC success, it was believed, lay the hidden hand of Special Branch. Moreover, the reputation it had developed for ill treatment of suspects in Palace Barracks in the 1970s and the role it had played in the shoot to kill operations of the 1980s, helped keep it centre stage in republicanism's rogues' gallery of hate figures.

In spite of all this, it was with a complete absence of trepidation that I made my way to meet Bill Lowry the former head of Special Branch in Belfast. The week previous at the Belfast launch of Dean Godson's biography of David Trimble, Blanket editor, Carrie Twomey, had asked him would he agree to an interview. He gave his assent on the spot. While I could never be persuaded that the Special Branch has nothing to hide, this struck me as the action of a man with little to fear. As I travelled to our agreed destination, the thought crossed my mind that going to meet someone who had strong Special Branch associations was a first for me. Meeting a republican was hardly novel to him. I wondered how many of my supposed comrades had set out with treachery in their hearts, if they ever experienced pangs of conscience over what they were doing to their fellow volunteers, what perverse satisfaction they derive today from holding down key positions in the organisation they betrayed, issuing directives to those they had frustrated at every turn.

I had no illusions that my exchange with Bill Lowry might enlighten me on such matters. After I had finished talking with him for two hours over endless cups of coffee, I knew had I pliers in my hand rather than a pen, I would have learned no more from him than I did. Whatever conclusions one may arrive at in relation to Bill Lowry, that he would endanger a source is certainly not one of them. Even when I raised the matter of Freddie Scappaticci, who few now even bother pretending was not a British agent, the former Chief Superintendent remained impassive. Not as much as a facial flicker thrown my way as a morsel over which I could mull.

Why did I decide to meet Bill Lowry? It certainly was not to hold his feet to the fire on behalf of the republican constituency as some sort of self-appointed witch finder general, or would-be slayer of securocrat dragons. There was no sense of a sacred mission aimed at getting to that particular truth which we had already ordained as having pre-existed and which only required a vigorous inquisitor to unlock it from the evil soul of RUC Special Branch. I certainly did not expect to convert him nor witness him beat his breast in atonement for whatever sins republicanism deemed him guilty of. There were many questions I intended to ask him and criticisms I would certainly air. I also wanted to tease out what he really thought of republicans outside of the constraints of officialdom. But the overriding motive was an intellectual promiscuity, a driving need to flirt with viewpoints wholly at odds with my own, interrogate them for myself and make the findings available to the wider public, rather than have them presented to me by others packaged up as some immutable verity. Remaining faithful to the tenets of one perspective gives a person a nun’s eye view of the world. Much better that we be unashamedly adulterous in our relationship with ‘the line.’

When we sat down for coffee there was no uneasiness. I had already pondered the possibility that in spite of himself the police instinct might kick in and he would subtly probe and push, hoping to exploit my curiosity. I remained unconcerned. I was hardly about to accept his coffee, give him my name and address, tell him I was over 21 and sit muttering ‘SS RUC’ throughout the remainder of our encounter, fearful that I might give something away. It was a nonchalance that proved justified. He showed not the slightest inclination towards picking my brain for illicit nuggets. No shifty eyes, or vacant expression as his mind drifted elsewhere pondering a means to prise open any defences. He simply behaved as an interviewee, fielding whatever I lobbed at him.

Bill Lowry’s post-policing life has led him to work as a consultant on intelligence-led-policing. ‘Policing is so expensive today that intelligence is the only way to keep the cost down.’ His rule of thumb was prevention rather than detection. Intelligence gathering is primarily pre-emptive. Although he stressed that it was only in the latter third of his police career that he became involved in the intelligence war when he joined RUC Special Branch. The Chinook helicopter crash in June 1994 deprived the British state’s intelligence community of many of its leaders as well as its most experienced operatives. Bill Lowry, for six years prior to the crash was Chief Inspector at Woodbourne Station on West Belfast’s Stewartstown Road. It was what he described as the happiest days of his lengthy police career. ‘The people there were crying out for policing.’ Perhaps, but not the aggressive paramilitary style approach offered through the Divisional Mobile Support Units or continuous attempts to recruit the £10 tout?

He explained that the type of policing adopted in West Belfast was in response to a challenge rather than the result of a choice. ‘

My first task was to keep police officers alive. The more I sought to police the more the Provos prevented me. Their presence heightened the need for information which is the lifeblood of any police service, and obtaining it from what you describe as £10 touts was one way of increasing the information flow. If you think this happened only with the RUC, you would be very wrong. Every police force in the world uses it. What may be needed is a tougher look at the conditions under which it is legally permissible to trawl for information. At the same time I tried to remove the military dimension to policing. The army inhibited good policing. I pulled them off the streets in Lenadoon on one occasion after the shooting of a joy rider as their presence was aggravating the situation.

Yet, despite the official government line that the police should not meet Sinn Fein delegations and Sinn Fein’s line that it would have no contact with the RUC, Bill Lowry merely laughs and claims to have met with party representatives on numerous occasions. ‘You have to remember that these people were very efficient public representatives and often to carry out that representation, they had to deal with the police.’

I queried him why he joined the RUC. He told me that he had initially worked as a motor mechanic but had switched to policing at the age of 25 out of a sense of service to the community. ‘I look on policing more as social work than prosecuting crime.’ Possibly detecting my frown, he said ‘never in my life have I sat down and planned to have somebody killed. I have always sought to protect life. You may not be able to say the same.’ It was said without the slightest trace of enmity. And I wasn’t even going to consider spoofing that I had went through my life without planning to kill people. It temporarily threw me but before I could respond he went on to elucidate his point. He hailed from a Protestant working class background, had robust socialist inclinations, and felt a sense of affinity with the cause of those involved in both Paris of 1968 and the black struggle for civil rights in the US.

Rights for Parisians or the citizens of Louisiana, fair enough, but what about our own cities?

Catholics had every right to demand social change in Ulster. Working class Protestants stood to gain from any improvement in social conditions. They were no better off than their Catholic neighbours. And the potential for change that had its origins in the talks between O’Neill and Lemass was powerful. But republicans came in and demanded a united Ireland rather than social change. And after all those years of terrorism, they are back to where it all began – seeking social change within Northern Ireland. What was it all for? They killed sixty per cent of those who died. Their young men and women gave their lives for a 32 county socialist republic. Can anybody seriously claim that there is anything socialist about republicans today? Even in terms of a united Ireland the Provos’ campaign hindered it. Without their terrorism we would be living in a very different Ireland today. Not united, but much more harmonious than exists now.

While considering my response, I asked him if he accepted that there was discrimination against Catholics.


Bill Lowry was lining up to be a very interesting and challenging interviewee.

Part Two: Out From the Shadows
Part Three: Political Policing




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Historians and economists {subsidized by governments} are very good at creating and perpetuating myths that justify increasing the power placed in the hands of government.
- Reuven Brenner

Index: Current Articles

11 July 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Miscarriages of Justice
Martin Cunningham

Dolours Price

Yes, Let's Do
George Young

Interview with Bill Lowry:
Forbidden Fruit
Out from the Shadows
Political Policing
Anthony McIntyre

8 July 2004

"Fury at Community Newspaper Funding"
Carrie Twomey

Don't Buy A British Lie
Geraldine Adams

Encouraging Debate
Mick Hall

Magpie's Nest
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Scargill in Ireland
Anthony McIntyre

Rev. Ian Harte
Davy Carlin

Family and Community Workers Concerned at False Reporting
Monkstown Community Resource Centre

Food, Trade and US Power Politics in Latin America
Toni Solo


The Blanket

http://lark. phoblacht. net


Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices

To contact the Blanket project with a comment, to contribute an article, or to make a donation, write to:
webmaster@phoblacht. net