Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Time to Come Clean over the Army's Role in the "Dirty War." (UK Military's Covert Operations in Northern Ireland)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Time to Come Clean over the Army's Role in the "Dirty War." (UK Military's Covert Operations in Northern Ireland)

Article excerpt

One useful contribution the government could make to Northern Ireland's historic political accord would be to exorcise a ghost that has haunted nationalists and republicans for more than 20 years: the suspicion that the British Army colluded with loyalist death squads to assassinate IRA suspects. It would also provide a real test of the government's commitment to human rights.

Last month I and my former BBC colleague Geoffrey Seed disclosed in the Sunday Telegraph extracts of classified army files that suggest a covert unit of military intelligence engaged in a form of "shoot to kill" between 1987 and 1990. The files show that the army's "force research unit" infiltrated an agent, Brian Nelson, into the largest of the loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association, specifically for the purpose of helping them target IRA suspects.

Ensuring that loyalist terrorists might as well kill the "enemy" rather than innocent Catholics may have cold military logic, but it is, of course, unlawful. And it didn't always work. Several of those killed or wounded in the 30 attacks in which Nelson was involved were not in the IRA or were no longer active.

The importance of the disclosures was that it was the first time documentary evidence had been produced in support of the allegation that the army had been involved in assassinations; an allegation dismissed by previous governments.

The present government seems to be no exception. On 1 April Adam Ingram, the Northern Ireland minister of state, wrote to the Sunday Telegraph's editor urging him to submit any evidence "to the proper authorities". He said the government "would certainly want to make sure that any new evidence was considered properly" but all we had produced was "unsubstantiated allegations".

This was an odd response, as Ingram must have been advised that the evidence to which we referred is in a police vault in Britain. The files had been seized from military intelligence in 1990 by a team of detectives led by the then deputy chief constable of Cambridgeshire, John Stevens, who was investigating allegations that members of the security forces had colluded with loyalist paramilitaries.

Relevant extracts of the files were also sent to the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions. After consulting the then attorney-general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, it was decided that no prosecutions should be brought against any military intelligence personnel.

They did, however, decide to prosecute Nelson, though there was no trial because the agent and the Crown did a deal. At a short heating in Belfast in January 1992 he pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy to murder, and to the relief of the authorities he was spared cross-examination. The intelligence colonel who had recruited Nelson also tried to limit the damage.

Referred to in court as "Colonel J", he claimed they had saved the lives of many republicans by helping to thwart attacks. However, in so doing Nelson had sometimes been drawn into criminal activity to preserve his cover. He had been too "enthusiastic", said the colonel.

None of the army's secret files, which paint such a different picture, were disclosed in court. Called "contact forms", they provide a detailed account of Nelson's weekly meetings with his army handlers and leave no doubt as to how he saw his role as an undercover agent: on his own admission he wanted to help the UDA to turn their guns away from shooting innocent Catholics to shooting IRA activists. A contact form dated 3 May 1988 states: "6137 [Nelson's code number] wants the UDA only to attack legitimate targets and not innocent Catholics. Since 6137 took up his position as intelligence officer, the targeting has developed and is now more professional?'

So "professional" was it that seven days later a completely innocent man was shot dead because Nelson had given a UDA gunman the wrong address.

The question is: while Nelson wanted what he called "legitimate targets" shot, is that what his army handlers wanted, too? …

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