The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Out From The Shadows

An Interview in 3 parts

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


Anthony McIntyre • 11 July 2004

I arrived on time at the venue where I had arranged to meet Bill Lowry. Minutes earlier he had called on my mobile phone to say he would be running slightly late. The coffee shop was a place of my choosing, and not exactly off the beaten track. I had previously conducted interviews there for the Blanket as well as meeting with members of other political parties. The week previous, I sat for an hour drinking coffee with Lindsay Whitcroft of the Green Party as I elicited her views on the way forward for green or radical politics - which for a sizeable body of opinion are not one and the same. In some ways the premises had the activist-cum-bohemian feel to them that Sartre would convey when writing of his daily visits to the café. They also exuded the atmosphere of the bars frequented by the autonomous left movement in Hamburg. Yet my surprise was not feigned when I walked in and saw what appeared to be a mini-political convention - Greens at one table and members of Sinn Fein at the next. The Greens were so engrossed in their conversation that they failed to notice me. For Sinn Fein old habits die hard. Party members invariably look to see who comes into premises they are on. Their colleague Sheena Campbell died standing at a bar just down the street, maybe because she failed to glance over her shoulder in time to see her assassin approach. I was beckoned to their table to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with all those at it, party members or not.

Suddenly, it hardly seemed a propitious place for an interview with the former head of Belfast Special Branch. As he was delayed, I stepped outside, waited, and when he arrived I outlined the situation and suggested we do the interview over coffee across the street. He was relaxed and seemed not to care where it took place. 'Sure you are publishing it anyway so it will hardly matter' was his sole comment as he smiled at the irony of it. True, but I wanted it out first before An Phoblacht/Republican News ran with a blazing headline, 'Anti-Sinn Fein Malcontent Meets Securocrat Handler.' After the Blanket had run the interview, AP/RN could pout feigned indignation all it liked.

There was little point in securing an interview with someone at one time so central to the British state’s intelligence community and then set out to prove in a ‘world exclusive’ that he was not in fact in RUC Special Branch after all, or ask him how ‘policing the shadows’ had affected his grandchild’s education. Fortunately, getting to the point was not like pulling hens' teeth. Bill Lowry was willing to discourse at length on the vital role played by intelligence gathering as part of policing practice.

I raised the issue of Nuala O'Loan having identified a range of Special Branch activities which must give cause for concern in any society that claims to be open; it had denied the existence of highly significant documents relating to intelligence issues, prevented access to identifiable documents; provided misleading information to the Ombudsman inquiry; and had allowed intelligence files to go missing. I then put it to him that Sinn Fein made a very compelling case when it contended that the primary intelligence gathering agency, Special Branch, had for three decades functioned as a 'force within a force' and operated with absolute impunity. Could he mount a plausible defence of the body against the following criticisms made by Gerry Kelly?

Special Branch corruption is an inevitable outcome in the presence of absolute power - the power over life and death in many cases - and in the absence of credible accountability measures. And the corruption does not stop there. Inevitably, when the Special Branch have seniority over every other section of the force, their corruption percolates all the way down.

The ‘force within a force’ criticism, he viewed as a truism seized upon by Sinn Fein for political leverage. But, I countered, Patten, Crompton and Stevens all complained in their reports of the type of 'force within a force' that Special Branch had become.

Every police force within the world has a ‘force within a force’ which operates on a need to know basis. Is it not true to say that the IRA’s intelligence department is a ‘force within a force’, or its nutting squad? Intelligence gathering cannot proceed in any other way. Special Branch will always exist as a means to prevent crime. That is where crime is stopped. With intimidation people are reluctant to go to the courts so there is less return in detection. The Provos killed Sidney Agnew, a bus driver in 1972 and in 1980 they killed a elderly man in Lenadoon after a rocket attack. This was to intimidate people out of giving evidence. Without getting the evidence to convict the emphasis has then to be placed on prevention. Special Branch will always exist even if it is called something else. It will be no different if Sinn Fein is in power. The same challenge of intelligence gathering faces all policing agencies. The National Intelligence Model now used in Britain was developed on the streets of Northern Ireland.

But even pleading special circumstance we are still left with the fact that the power over who lived or died was not one exercised with as much latitude and so little accountability in other police forces - there seems abundant evidence that Special Branch viewed its sources as more important than lives?

Not in my time. There was never one incident where we allowed a murder to proceed in order to protect an agent. There was no impunity. The guidelines were very clear to all agents. They were not to be involved in killing. If they were they were on their own and would face the consequences. The principle of preserving life could never be sustained by permitting life to be taken. In all of this I have nothing to fear from public inquiries - bring them on. I would welcome them.

But this policy could have been because Special Branch supremo Brian Fitzsimmons, prior to his own death and Bill Lowry's subsequent transfer to the Branch, had ordered - much to the chagrin of fellow Branch Superintendent Ian Phoenix - that republican suspects be arrested by the police rather than have lethal force used against them. Fitzsimmons was sensitive to the needs of facilitating the peace process and was determined to do nothing that might jeopardise securing an end to the IRA campaign. However, in the area of collusion-linked killings, allegations there have now taken on institutional expression through the Cory Report. There must be substance to at least some of them?

If we colluded as much with loyalists as is often alleged by republicans why did they kill so many innocent Catholics and very few republicans? Would the purpose of collusion not have been to target senior republicans?

In response I observed that the journalist Ed Moloney had suggested that the security forces were largely indifferent to who their agents killed and that their primary purpose in infiltrating loyalist organisations like the UDA was to ensure that the loyalists did not kill agents of the British within the IRA. After that they could go pretty much as they pleased. Moloney alleged that the FRU agent Brian Nelson's intelligence was only used to stop two killings, one of whom was Britain’s agent in the IRA, Stakeknife.

From an intelligence-gathering point of view, the two groups of terrorists were different. With republicans, if the army council gave a directive, then it was going to be adhered to and followed. There was a pattern to follow. With loyalists, it didn't really matter what they agreed at their top meetings because when everybody went out they often did their own thing. The way the Shankill UDA worked ensured that agents were often of little assistance. A murder would be conceived of within a pub and put into effect on the spot. What use is an agent in that situation? Often, the first we knew of a murder plot was when the leader came out of the pub and began pointing and giving directions.

Did the manner in which the IRA structured and organised itself facilitate penetration much better than loyalist groups?

'Absolutely. The Provos were a very settled group with clear structures of command.'

Were they extensively penetrated? The former RUC man smiled, but refused to be drawn. 'Penetration of all terrorist organisations was good.'

Even if it were accepted that Sinn Fein exaggerate the case for propaganda purposes, which I don’t believe it does, this does not dilute the strong belief within the nationalist community that Special Branch was involved in torture, shoot-to-kill and its subsequent cover-up resulting in the hounding of John Stalker, and - the spectre that now haunts the security services - the Pat Finucane killing.

I can only speak for my own period in Special Branch and none of the areas you referred to were covered by that. I do not believe Special Branch knew Pat Finucane was about to be murdered and just let it go ahead. As for the Castlereagh interrogations, whatever way they were carried out it was the function of the CID, not Special Branch. These are all human rights issues. And of course, it was a great stage for republicans to stand on. This was down to a widespread belief that governments alone abused human rights and they alone should be accountable for it. The Provos posed as human rights champions. Martin McGuinness complains about loyalist death squads but the most efficient death squads throughout the conflict were republican ones.

Ten years after the first IRA ceasefire with people prepared to be a bit more candid, sensing that there will be no resumption of the armed campaign - Hugh Orde said in Sunday's Observer that the IRA had 'no intent at all' to resume armed struggle - we are now hearing more and more that the Provisional IRA was militarily defeated. One newspaper stated in the wake of the Chilcott Report that the codenames of 500 informers were stolen at Castlereagh. If so, and taken in combination with Patten who said Special Branch had 800 members, it suggests that we live in a heavily monitored society. It also indicates a serious level of penetration of armed bodies. While he stated that penetration was ‘good’ was it so good that it proved instrumental in securing the effective defeat of the Provisional IRA?

Belfast Special Branch never had 500 informers. I will not tell you how many but it was not even half that number. As for Special Branch having 800 members, that would include uniformed back up and office staff. Penetration helped bring the Provos to a realisation that they were going nowhere.

But did such penetration, to whatever extent it existed, help facilitate the peace process in that it closed down any military option for the IRA?

‘That would be accurate enough. The Provos were pushed into the peace process, they did not jump first. Our intelligence was too strong. On the point you raised about defeat, we were not defeated. I don't feel in any way defeated. For the Provos, you could say they settled for an honourable draw.'

But how was it a draw given what he had earlier said that the Provisionals had only managed to arrive back at the point from where they started out? The way in which he viewed matters possessed its own peculiar logic if it is ommitted that the Provisional IRA, unlike everybody else, promised to revolutionise relations between Ireland and the British state and therefore had least to gain by going back to the start:

Everybody else also ended up where they had started. The Provos are still intact and remain very efficient. They did Makro. I can tell you that without the benefit of any inside information. Their style is all over it. It is my view that in their time they succeeded in penetrating the RUC and will no doubt do likewise with the PSNI in the future.

Because of the existence and activity of the IRA he felt that there could be no effective political movement within unionism. ‘The Provos need to end it altogether. Why do they keep it going other than to keep the boys busy?’

His attitude towards republicans I found fascinating. When he spoke there was an absence of malice and none of the moralising tones that so often come from politicians who then sit down with the very people they earlier proclaimed would churn their stomachs if they were to come within touching distance of.

Even their most determined opponents have a grudging respect for the Provos. They were very much more principled than the loyalists. Unlike the loyalists there is little evidence of personal corruption. Their members are very organisation focused. In as far as terrorism can be principled they did try to keep it non-sectarian. They often failed but that is to be expected in this society. If you shoot a police officer it is very likely that you will be killing a member of the Protestant community and the sectarian implications of that cannot just be swept aside.

If individual IRA volunteers possessed such personal integrity what made so many ‘work for the other side’ over the years? In the view of Bill Lowry, motives varied. Some of the best people recruited came not as a result of detective or Special Branch inducement but from uniformed police on the ground. Money, surprisingly, was rarely a primary consideration. ‘The pay simply was not good. Many of them were sick of violence.’ He pointed to the Marty McGartland book to support this contention. I told him that I had read the book but found it very self-serving. Furthermore, from living in the community where McGartland had plied his touting trade, I was no stranger to accounts of him. Money was always a big factor in the life of Marty McGartland.

As I left to use the toilet, thinking that symbolically it would help flush thoughts of McGartland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking from my mind, I wondered what type of literature captured the attention of my interviewee and how he would assess secret histories of the organisation of which I had been a volunteer – the Provisional IRA.

Part Three: Political Policing




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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.
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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


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