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.
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
was little point in securing an interview with someone
at one time so central to the British states
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 grandchilds
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.
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
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
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.
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 IRAs
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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
Britains agent in the IRA, Stakeknife.
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.
the manner in which the IRA structured and organised
itself facilitate penetration much better than loyalist
The Provos were a very settled group with clear structures
they extensively penetrated? The former RUC man smiled,
but refused to be drawn. 'Penetration of all terrorist
organisations was good.'
if it were accepted that Sinn Fein exaggerate the
case for propaganda purposes, which I dont 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.
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.
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
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.
did such penetration, to whatever extent it existed,
help facilitate the peace process in that it closed
down any military option for the IRA?
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I left to use the toilet, thinking that symbolically
it would help flush thoughts of McGartlands
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.
Three: Political Policing
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