Guest writer former H Block blanketman, Alec McCrory, taking a look at a book on the role of British Special Forces in the North's conflict. The book was written by former British combatant, Simon Cursey.
So, the MRF was conceived by someone within the top brass as a blunt instrument for dealing with the IRA. A similar tactic had been used in other conflict theatres, such as in Kenya and Malaya, with great effect. General Frank Kitson, the chief exponent of counter-insurgency warfare served here in the early 70's, being awarded a (CBE) for his sterling efforts. In his book Low Intensity Operations he formulated the concept of pseudo-gangs as an effective weapon in 'asymmetrical warfare'. Simply put: a pseudo-gang is a highly specialized unit operating secretly outside of the normal chain of command and control of a conventional army.
In his new book, MRF Shadow Troop, Simon Cursey offers revealing insights into the dark world of pseudo-gangs operating in the six-counties during the early days of the conflict. His firsthand account provides intimate knowledge of the structure, function, membership and modus operandi of the covert unit in a matter of fact manner. His writing style appeals to me for its directness and economy.
Cursey came from an infantry background. He joined the army when he left school and spent two years at an Army training camp in the north of England. He took to it like a duck to water. By the time he turned 18 he was well trained "in all things military" acquiring the rank of Junior Lance Corporal. After passing out in 1968 he was assigned to Support Company, a plum posting for "the best and most talented soldiers." His superiors considered him a bright individual with a good future ahead.
For many years the acronym MRF was understood to mean Military Reconnaissance Force or Mobile Response Force, however, this has now been corrected. The Military Reaction Force was a secret unit that consisted of 30 to 40 men from elite formations such as "the Parachute Regiment, Royal Marines, Military Police, former SAS members and Special Boat Service." All of them were handpicked for their specialist skills, abilities and sangfroid. Operating deep inside enemy territory was extremely hazardous and stressful, therefore, only a certain type of individual was suited to the task. It certainly was not a job for the faint hearted.
In the first years of the war British soldiers in uniform, with scant body armour and open top vehicles, were easy targets for the IRA. Because they lacked local knowledge and up to date intelligence, squaddies were sitting ducks while out on patrol. Active service units of the IRA attacked them from every street corner and alleyway with crippling accuracy. From behind the barricades young men and women inflicted injury and death on the foreign invaders and then disappeared into the night like ghosts. British military personal claimed they were constrained by the 'yellow card', and that IRA volunteers acted unhindered by any code or regulations. Many on the British side thought the game unfair.
1972 was to be the most violent year of the conflict with over 500 deaths, more than half of them civilians. The situation was spiralling out of control and it appeared to many that the 'terrorists'' were gaining the upper hand. But military planners would quickly learn to adopt to the demands of fighting a highly motivated enemy in an urban setting using unconventional methods. Asymmetrical warfare required some out off the box thinking and application.
When Cursey was invited to join the MRF in March 1972 he was unaware of the existence of a covert group operating deep undercover against the IRA. He was a keen convert to the idea. The selection process was intensive beginning with his company sergeant major (CSM), Battalion HQ and military intelligence. Men in suits conducted hours of interview and screening to access his suitability for the job. Cursey was in no doubt this was an army operation from the highest level. The following is a short quote from the 'Boss', the Officer Commanding the unit, at Cursey's initial briefing.
Officially we, the MRF, don't exist - on paper, that is - and very few people actually know anything about us. We're directly responsible to the GOCN [General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland] and no-one else.
Military Reaction Force was based at Hollywood barracks only a short distance outside of Belfast. It had a separate self-contained compound that acted as the operational nerve centre of the unit. The entire outfit was wholly self-sufficient so it did not have to interact with other elements of the regular army.
Military dress code and etiquette were absent and the atmosphere was relaxed though disciplined. In a short period the group developed a strong esprit de corps fashioned by the extremely risky and dangerous nature of the job. Shadow troop saw itself as the cutting edge of the fight to destroy the IRA.
Recent claims that the MRF was responsible for killing several civilians does not come as a blinding revelation to many. In the case of Daniel Rooney and Brendan Brennan it was commonly known by the local population that the British had a hand in their murder. The ten innocents identified by Panorama as victims of the unit are only the tip of the iceberg. For if we accept Cursey's boast that the MRF was the "seed bed" of 14 intelligence company and FRU, then the potential list of victims rises to dozens. Sometimes it is easier to separate the fish from the water by simply pulling the plug.
What is not covered in Cursey's book was the role of rouge IRA elements in the activities of the MRF: He makes only one reference to the involvement of IRA informers in the Four Square Laundry operation. Young men turned under interrogation were used to carry out black operations, shooting and bombing attacks, in nationalist areas for the purpose of discrediting the IRA or fermenting sectarian strife. Some of these agents were uncovered, executed and buried in shallow graves.
The Military Reaction Force was the brainchild of the British High command to deal effectively with the IRA in Belfast at a time when the war was raging. Its MO was to use lethal force unrestrained by the normal chain of command and control. The IRA was to be stopped by using its own methods against it. Penetration, infiltration, eradication; these were the guiding principles of Shadow Troop.
This book is what it is. Wrote in the first person it has bravado, panache and its fair share of self-justification. I shall finish off with Cursey's own words in the final paragraph of the book:
Finally, a little further on the left, entering Andersontown, I'd walk into Milltown Cemetery thinking of those good friends of mine that didn't make it and were murdered, left behind. I would take a long casual look around the cemetery, which is now the permanent home to so many IRA terrorists. I'd be searching for the old, familiar, notorious names - the names of those evil terrorist killers of women and babies who didn't really deserve the right to life - and then I'd piss on them.