|By Deirdre Younge|
The BBC NI Spotlight programme showed images of RUC intelligence that ended up in the hands of the UFF/UDA. It was used to target suspected republicans, including Loughlin Maginn, shot in Rathfriland in August 1989. His death, following that of solicitor Pat Finucane in February 1989, sparked the decades-long investigations by Sir John Stevens into collusion by the Security forces. Stevens was not shown evidence of RUC collusion.
The fact that the UDA were receiving large volumes of intelligence material from RUC sources was known to the agent Brian Nelson, his Army Intelligence handlers and M15. That intelligence also, no doubt, informs the de Silva Report into Pat Finucane’s murder. De Silva was given access to British Army and MI5 intelligence that RUC officers at every level were leaking information to Loyalists. That intelligence is also integrated into the Ombudsman’s report on the Loughinisland murders as it relates to RUC ‘tip-offs’ about surveillance operations carried out in an attempt to seize UR weapons in Armagh in 1987 and 1988.
|An article in the Portadown News, November 1988|
"Awareness among members of UR that some of its members were M15 agents led to a disastrous loss of control by the Security Services and Special Branch – and multiple murders"
Part 1: Commissioner Harris
Drew Harris, the Garda Commissioner, didn’t leave the ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland behind him on entering Garda HQ.
In the High Court in Belfast in 2017 Judge Seamus Treacy ruled that there should be an overarching investigation into State collusion with the ‘Glenanne Gang’ and asked the PSNI to respond. In the Court of Appeal in Belfast the Lord Chief Justice ruled in July against an appeal and said there must be an independent investigation carried out by the PSNI.
More recently in Belfast a high-profile ‘trial on the facts’ to determine whether veteran Republican Ivor Bell was guilty of ordering the abduction and murder of Jean McConville collapsed because of the contentiousness of evidence derived from Bell’s conversations recorded as part of the Boston College college project. That prosecution was initiated while Harris was in the PSNI with responsibility for ‘Legacy’.
With the signing into law in Ireland of the Criminal Justice (International Cooperation) Act 2019, the Garda can now give evidence and share intelligence with Coroners’ Courts in Northern Ireland.
|The Miami Showband|
In 1989 MI5 reported the overall picture seems to be one of RUC collusion and links with the Loyalists which is similar in scale to that of the UDR, but the latter is much more likely to become involved in very serious crimes
Dealing with the past is also causing problems for some retired RUC men – members of the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers’ Association (NIRPOA). They now apparently believe a policy of non-co-operation with bodies like the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland has been counterproductive.
Part 2: Ombudsman confirms collusion
NIPROA took a Judicial Review against the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland and his 2016 report on the 1994 Heights Bar murders in Loughinisland. Former Head of Special Branch and Assistant Chief Constable Ray White often acts as its spokesman.
"In 1989 MI5 reported the overall picture seems to be one of RUC collusion and links with the Loyalists which is similar in scale to that of the UDR, but the latter is much more likely to become involved in very serious crimes"
Their affidavit was submitted in the names of Ray White and retired Chief Superintendent Thomas Hawthorne, the former Sub Divisional Commander in Co Down and chief investigator of the Loughinisland killings. They challenged the powers of the Ombudsman to come to a verdict of collusion in his report on the murders. The report tried to establish the trail of the weapons which were used in the attack, from their importation into NI in late 1987 to their use in 1994. “Tried”, because as he said in his report: “Throughout my investigation I have been unable to obtain key documents, including records relating to the police response to the importation of firearms in 1987”. The former Officers had a victory of sorts when Justice McCloskey gave judgment for the RUC officers and vindicated Hawthorne. The judge finally and reluctantly recused himself from the case. He had represented the RUC in an appeal against a previous Ombudsman’s finding in the investigation of the Omagh Bombing.
A finding on the remaining issues will fall to another judge.
The Ombudsman’s report was damning of the RUC investigation into the murders of six men and of earlier searches for weapons; and concluded that there was collusion from beginning to end. One of his chief criticisms was of an inexplicable failure to conduct a proper search for the weapons, particularly at the farm of the now notorious Glennane-based farmer, Ulster Resistance supporter and UVF accomplice, the late James Mitchell.
Part 3: Murder of RUC Commander and colluder with UVF, Harry Breen
Harry Breen probably knew more than anyone about the secret world of Loyalists informers. Sources say he was one of the very few who also knew the whereabouts of the “Resistance” arms cache.
At this time, according to Security Forces sources, Breen was deeply distrustful of the new security directions coming from the Security Services and the NIO. Like many RUC men, he saw them as appeasement rather than taking the fight to the IRA, with a new emphasis on talks with Republicans rather than on fighting their terrorism. They say Breen would never have agreed to a “ceasefire” which they saw coming down the line.
"Breen had been a member of a notorious Special Patrol Group (SPG) in Armagh, in the 1970s. It was said to have been aided and abetted by the mid-Ulster UVF."
Whether Breen was sympathetic to UR as some believe, or acting on an intelligence agenda it’s unlikely he reached a senior position in the RUC as a “rogue” policeman.
Breen’s death still causes unease among former members of the Security Forces in Armagh. One former UDR man said “The couldn’t have let him live. He knew too much”.
The RUC and UDR in Armagh at this time were under ferocious attack from the IRA – often shot down in front of their families. This has left a residue of bitterness to this day. But they also came under another form of attack over the constant flood of leaks from RUC stations allowing the targeting of Republican suspects and activists, by Loyalists. The Irish Government regularly protested about the leaks and threatened to stop sharing information under the structures of the Anglo Irish Agreement.
The Security Services also pointed the finger at the RUC as can be seen in documents published in the de Silva Report. A memo from the Head of the Assessment Group (M15) to the Director and Coordinator of Intelligence (29 September 1989) gives a stark warning: “All in all the overall picture seems to be one of RUC collusion and links with the Loyalists which is similar in scale (if not greater in some respects) to that of the UDR, but the latter is much more likely to become involved in very serious crimes…”.
‘Spotlight showed images of RUC intelligence that ended up in the hands of the UFF/UDA. It was used to target suspected republicans’
Breen had been a member of a notorious Special Patrol Group (SPG) in Armagh, in the 1970s. It was said to have been aided and abetted by the mid-Ulster UVF led by notorious Commander Robin Jackson a member of the UDR. There seems no doubt Jackson was a protected State informer. Even Senior RUC Officers find it hard to work out exactly which agency was running Jackson. One concluded recently that it was probably multiple agencies at different times. However British Army sources have recently said that Jackson was handled by or through the RUC and not Army Intelligence.
A former member of the UDR who lived near Glennane said, ‘Sure that SPG [Special Patrol Group] down here – they took off their uniforms and put on their camouflage gear and shot people. Then they put the uniforms back on and went to the house to investigate. Sure someone knew what was going on.’
According to Special Branch sources, Brian Fitzsimons, former Chief Superintendent at Newry Station and, for the much of the 1980s Deputy Head of Special Branch, as early as the mid-1970s said that Breen was “gathering arms” for Loyalists in Armagh. Ex Army Intelligence officer Colin Wallace gave a statement to Judge Barron’s investigations into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 2003 which alleged that Army Intelligence believed Harry Breen and Frank Murray, who was the Head of Special Branch in Armagh, were sympathetic to Loyalist paras: “Harry Breen was one of the key figures giving information and support for (their) operations generally”. However, Breen’s career proceeded apace. He became Chief Superintendent in Bessbrook and then Divisional Commander in H Division containing a good deal of Armagh and part of Co Down. Breen succeeded Chief Superintendent Brian Lally as Divisional Commander in February 1988. Lally retired aged 53 after refusing transfer to a post liaising with the new Army Battalion which policed the border, as he considered the transfer a demotion. In 1982 Lally was reported by the ‘Irish News’ to have helped prepare the CID file after INLA men Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew were shot dead on the outskirts of the city.
After just over a year as Divisional Commander, Breen was ambushed by the IRA on the Edenappa Road on 20 March 1989. An IRA statement to the Smithwick Tribunal investigating the murder said Breen was a target after Loughgall when the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade were wiped out attempting to bomb an RUC station. Breen was in charge of the armed RUC officers at the scene according to sources.
"The actions of Breen and the RUC SPG operating in Armagh in the 1970s will now be an integral part of an investigation into what became known as ‘The Glennane Gang’."
As described in Village in April 2017, Breen’s RUC journal described a series of weapons searches, arrests and convictions in Armagh and Down during 1988 in obvious Loyalist areas like Richhill and Hamiltonsbawn, that did not feature in the NI Ombudsman’s report. Sources in Armagh have also described intensive searches by the Army in 1988 and 1989 and later and there is much information in published sources about arrests and convictions in connection with weapons finds. The ballistics trail of Ulster Resistance and UVF weapons does not end at Mitchell’s farm in January 1988. It leads to Loughinisland in 1994.
‘The actions of Breen and the RUC in Armagh in the 1970s will now be an integral part of an investigation into what became known as ‘The Glennane Gang’
Part 4: Ulster Resistance (UR)
|Leading members of Ulster Resistance (UR)|
The Ombudsman focuses the first part of his report in Armagh, the engine room of the UR/UVF/UDA plots to import weapons. It traces the arms importation to the 1985 visit of loyalist covert-army-FRU (Force Research Unit) Agent Brian Nelson to South Africa and his dealings with the massive arms conglomerate, Armscor. The UR contact Richard Wright was a director of Nimrod, the Marketing arm of Armscor and an uncle of a UR founder, Alan Wright. One of the UR founders, Markethill man Noel Little, also had long-standing links with Wright.
The Loyalist connection with the arms trade was through Shorts’ East Belfast factory which manufactured sophisticated ground-to-air missiles. The Blowpipe and more sophisticated successor the Starburst, were highly sought after by the South Africans for their bush wars.
Lt. Col. Oliver North
Peter Kornbluh in The Pinochet Files has some fascinating details of North’s relationship with Shorts:
Their elaborate scheme (North and fellow conspirators) called for Short Brothers, the Belfast-based manufacturer of the Blowpipe missile, to facilitate the transfer of the weapons from Chile to the Contra forces through El Salvador, using falsified end-user certificates.
The VP from Short Bros sought me out several months ago and I met with him again…Short Bros, the manufacturer of the Blowpipe is willing to arrange a deal, conduct the training and even send UK “tech reps” fwd if we can close the arrangement. Dick Secord has already paid 10% down on the delivery and we have a (country deleted) EUC (end user) which is applicable to Chile.
North had an Irish passport and, interestingly, former US Vice President, Dan Quayle, once associated with North, still retains some involvement in Northern Ireland as Chairman of Cerberus’ Investment arm. In other words despite an arms embargo the UK Government covertly supported the arms trade.
The arrangements in 1987 were facilitated by Douglas Bernhardt, an Armscor agent in Switzerland, who apparently brokered the deal with ‘Brigadier’ John Michael, the UDA leader, who was murdered by a car bomb shortly before the arms arrived in 1988. After receiving the money Bernhardt bought the guns from a Lebanese middleman. They were then shipped from Beirut to Belfast. The weapons consisted of 206 CZ58s high velocity rifles, 26 .38 Browning’s, 4 rocket launchers, 25,000 rounds of ammunition, and grenades. Loyalist sources are convinced the entire deal happened under the eyes of the various security services. Indeed it was only through Security Service and Army agents that some weapons were seized after they had initially been slipped out of Belfast port and driven to Armagh.
The shipment came into Belfast Port in late 1987. The weapons were transported by an Armagh man who drove articulated trucks in a 40-foot lorry to a location outside Portadown. One source connected to Ulster Resistance pointed out that the weapons stayed in the container and had to be stored in a large yard. He named a UVF leader who had such a yard near Portadown. Having lost track of the initial delivery, which the Ombudsman described as a “major intelligence failure”, it was through the UDA link that Special Branch in Belfast picked up the trail again on 8 January 1988. The Head of Belfast Special Branch at this time was Ray White, mentioned above, who had served in Special Branch in Lurgan in the late 1970s and had a particular knowledge of Loyalist paramilitaries in Mid-Ulster, as he told the Smithwick Tribunal in 2011.
|The Chinook helicopter crash|
Phoenix described how the day after the shipment arrived, two Ford Granada cars were seen acting suspiciously in the Tandragee area. A road block was mounted and the cars were stopped. Inside was Davy Payne. Two other men, his UDA helpers, were also arrested.
The next day follow-up searches were begun in the Tandragee area and on 3 February the police uncovered a UVF arms-hide containing rocket launchers, a submachine-gun, rifles, revolvers and 12,000 rounds of ammunition. Phoenix concluded that “The only group to successfully get its hand on the…weapons was Ulster Resistance. However, it later reached an agreement with the other two organisations and shared its portion of the haul with them, ensuring a loyalist escalation of violence would take place over the coming years”.
Sources in Armagh recently gave Village magazine background detail to the operation – how the UDA had been offered a delivery to Belfast but had decided to pick up their share of the weapons in Armagh. It was the main UR organiser in Armagh who insisted that the UDA Belfast contingent hire Ford saloon cars in Belfast, which had the effect of making them conspicuous in rural Armagh. Davey Payne the UDA ‘Brigadier’ with his two low-level UDA men set off in the two Fords and an Austin Maestro with a prominent Ulster Resistance man’s number on his hand. Tracked by the E4A surveillance team from Belfast, Payne and his entourage parked in a car park in Tandragee before setting off down the B3, which is a winding road, in the direction of Markethill, from which there are small roads and lanes leading off to Richhill and Hamiltonsbawn. They were making for the farm which later Intelligence said was within five miles of the town where the weapons were said to be stored, still in the original container. E4A apparently “became unsighted” of the three.
The next day, in a planned operation by the Tasking and Coordinating Group (TCG) in Armagh, the trio were tracked from Tandragee to the Mahon Road near Portadown on their way back to Belfast laden with weapons, and were arrested outside the UDR barracks and RUC station. Former UDR Major John Potter in his book on the UDR “Testimony to Courage” (2002) is, strange as it may seem, one of the clearest sources for searches at this point and later significant finds in November 1988. He says the UDR were part of these planned operations.
That evening the UDA HQ in Gawn Street was raided, arrests followed and documents were seized. The following October Payne was sentenced to 20, and the others 14, years by Belfast High Court.
Despite these obvious attempts to track the weapons by Belfast Special Branch and the TCG in Armagh there was a general policy of non co-operation with the Ombudsman when he tried to investigate the arms importation. The Head of the TCG in 1989 refused to give information to the Ombudsman and all TCG records have been destroyed. He did, however, give evidence to Smithwick, anonymously under a cipher number. His only contribution was to confirm that the TCG in Armagh had no operation in place on 20 March 1989 in or around the Edenappa Road.
However, some sources in Armagh say the arms never reached, nor were they intended for, Glennane. Not only were the small country roads full of troops so transporting large loads was dangerous, the container could only fit in a large barn, not in Mitchell’s sheds.
The Ombudsman view, however, is understandable. Mitchell, whose farm was the meeting place for the gang formed around the SPG in Armagh in the 1970s, was involved with the UVF for decades and was in on the Ulster Resistance plot with other Markethill men. He had been arrested in 1980 and sentenced to three years imprisonment for the possession of arms and explosives. In 1990, as the Ombudsman’s report detailed, there was intelligence describing meetings between Mitchell, the UR leaders and the UVF about the arms arrival.
In 1991 Mitchell’s farm was searched and ammunition of a different type to the imports of 1987 seized. However, the Ombudsman Investigators also saw an entry in the RUC’s Reports Book from Markethill from January 1988 which describes a search by the Royal Engineers of a House on the Lough Road, Glennane, owned by Mitchell – at which nothing was found. Sources in Armagh are adamant that a large swathe of countryside, including Glennane, was searched at this time: cattle turned out of barns, grain stores emptied and a ten-mile cordon erected around the town of Markethill. However, they say, the arms had gone elsewhere.
The failure to stop or retrieve all the weapons, despite the involvement of informants in the arms importation, was a significant intelligence failure…This is particularly the case in relation to the failure to retrieve imported weapons from a farm owned by James Mitchell. The outcome of this failure was that not all the weapons were recovered by the police and many, including the VZ58 rifle used in Loughinisland, were subsequently used in a wide range of murders.
Between March 1988 and May 2005 there were at least 70 murders or attempted murders using the VZ58. The weapons added a new edge to Loyalist gunmen campaign which increased in intensity.
The Ombudsman rightly points out that “Despite being implicated by Intelligence in the importation of these weapons senior members of the UVF, UDA and Ulster Resistance were not subject of police investigation”. The arrests and convictions that followed were of relatively minor players. The leaders of the UVF were largely untouched. The small men of Ulster Resistance faded into the background.
By now many Loyalists in Armagh had enough of being used as the various intelligence services mudguards. As one said recently “what you must remember is – Loyalists hate M15”.
The Ombudsman appears to conclude that the blame for the failure of the surveillance operation and loss of weapons rests with the local RUC who by implication were colluding in covering up the weapons cache at Mitchell’s Farm.
Mitchell was described recently as a decoy – a convenient scapegoat to hide the real and often anonymous power brokers in the Loyalist paramilitary leadership in Armagh. One loyalist commented that “every time anything happened in Armagh the men in Portadown had a saying – ‘ Ah, Jimmy Mitchell’s for it now’ “.
There was a significant find of UVF weapons at Flush Road on the outskirts of Belfast on the 4th of February 1988 including a rocket launcher with 26 rockets and 40,000 rounds of ammunition, during a “planned search” as reported by the Irish Times.
Apart from 1990 intelligence that Jackson had assault rifles and a rocket launcher and that he gave weapons to the ‘Brigadier’ of East Belfast UVF, the trail of the weapons in Armagh ran cold as far as the Ombudsman has been concerned.
Sources maintain to Village that the UR share of the weapons was supposed to go to one of the UR leaders, in Markethill, about four miles north of Glennane, but suspicion fell on one of the leaders, believed to be working for M15 so the UR men insisted their share be diverted from his chosen location, a property near Markethill.
"Despite an arms embargo the UK Government covertly supported Ollie North’s efforts to arm Nicaraguan Contras."
The weapons, say the sources, had initially been collected by a man connected to the Portadown UVF, driven in an articulated lorry to North Armagh and stored in a container in the barn between Tandragee and Armagh. The weapons’ distribution remained under UVF supervision. The UR share was, eventually, loaded onto a Territorial Army ambulance and ultimately ended up in Armagh TA barracks. Where it is today, remains a closely guarded secret.
Willie Frazer from Markethill was alleged in the ‘Spotlight’ programme to be a transporter and distributor of UR weapons. His family has denied that assertion. However, he at least had sweeping knowledge about events in Armagh over the years and a close relationships with senior loyalists in Belfast. As a young man in Armagh in the mid-1970s the SAS warned Frazer off getting close to Robert Nairac, MI5-controlled provocateur, who was a familiar figure in the Markethill and Whitescross areas as well as in South Armagh. Nairac was designated a “Grenadier Guardsman” but worked for a ‘special unit’ accountable to MI5 and led by SAS agent Tony Ball though, confoundingly, not answerable to the SAS. Security sources in Armagh say a four man SAS unit was in Forkhill RUC station the night Nairac was taken from the Four Steps Inn in Drumentee.
Documents recently released to solicitors for one of the Miami Showband victims allegedly reveal Nairac obtained equipment and weapons for, co-ordinated and executed the massacre which was perpetrated by the UVF led by their commander Robin Jackson. However, the Ministry of Defence has emphatically denied this. Survivor Stephen Travers has said one of the attackers spoke with an English accent. Two serving UDR officers, and one ex-UDR officer served life sentences for the murders.
More revelations about Nairac’s activities here are expected in coming months. One of the reasons they have not emerged earlier is that MI5-generated information is covered by the Official Secrets Act.
Frazer was approached in recent years and asked about the location of the remaining UR weapons – by various figures from a preacher to a former RUC officer – but he kept his secrets. Well informed sources say the Ulster Resistance weapons cache remains in Armagh
In part 2 of his report the Ombudsman describes the emergence of a UVF gang in Co Down and murders carried out from 1988 including Paddy Kielty’s father shot dead in Dundrum. They were later to carry out the murders of 6 people in Loughinisland, acting with the mid Ulster and Shankill Rd units.
The weapon used in the attack on the Heights Bar to devastating effect was one of Jackson’s CZ58s a rifle equivalent to the Kalashnikov or armalite. The PONI Report traced the weapon used to other crimes. Joseph Reynolds had been murdered with the same CZ58 on the 12th of October 1993 on his way to work in Shorts Aerospace in Sydenham East Belfast. On the 22nd March 1994 there was an attempted murder at a butchers in Cromac Street, Belfast, a joint effort by East-Belfast and Mid-Ulster. The gun used was a 9mm Browning-type pistol matched to one found at Loughinisland. Another attempted murder in Boucher Crescent in South Belfast was linked to a gun later used by the South Down unit at the Thierfurth Inn.
In June1994 four men with links to the UVF were shot by the INLA on the Shankill Road. Two died from their injuries. This was to unleash a revenge attack.
On the evening of June 18th 1994 the UVF gunmen drove to the Heights Bar, a quiet country pub near Downpatrick. They opened fire in the bar with a CZ58 and within seconds 6 people were dead and 14 injured. Ever since their grieving relatives have been trying to discover why no one has stood trial for the murders. The Ombudsman gave a damning verdict on the RUC investigation and says that there was collusion from start to finish and that the RUC was infiltrated by or had close links with the UVF.
"The Ombudsman appears to conclude that the blame for the failure of the surveillance operation and loss of weapons rests with the local RUC who by implication were colluding in covering up the weapons cache at Mitchell’s Farm but Mitchell may have just been a convenient scapegoat."
In his report the Ombudsman used cyphers to identify two brothers living locally to the pub, one of whom he believes was the gunman. Alex Gibney in his powerful documentary “No Stone Unturned” names two men he alleges were the gunmen based on a leaked intelligence document and a letter implicating – local man Ronald Hawthorne. Hawthorn has made complaints to the press Ombudsman North and South, about being named as one of the gunmen.
Robin Jackson’s arsenal of weapons was used in multiple murders. Senior Garda, and well informed loyalist sources, believe he was a highly protected agent. There were other untouchables associated with the Mid-Ulster UVF. Some, wealthy men unknown outside their own areas. It is now also known that the UVF in Belfast was thoroughly infiltrated. The recent trial of UVF leader ‘Brigadier’ Gary Haggarty, a Special Branch agent while he carried out numerous murders, saw him get a shockingly short sentence in the High Court in Belfast.
Why are former RUC men reluctant to talk about the searches for weapons?
One source in mid Ulster with an insight into events would only say “because the whole point of it was to put pressure on the Provos”.
Recently a man describing himself as a former RUC officer and claiming to have worked closely with the late Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, has been in Armagh enquiring about the whereabouts of the Ulster Resistance weapons. His identity is not known.
William Frazer (left) died in 2019 and his funeral service (right) was held near his home
in rural Armagh. Arlene Foster, his friend and solicitor, gave a warm oration at it.
Willie Frazer was a witness at the Smithwick Tribunal in September 2012. He felt he had been excluded from the Tribunal he had helped set up but there were promises to keep. In evidence, he revealed that one of Harry Breen’s last meetings was with RUC Sgt Billy McBride; despite the disparity in rank McBride was Breen’s close friend. He also features in the John Weir’s 2003 statement about the Glenanne gang. McBride was a proficient amateur gunsmith. McBride revealed details of Breen’s anxious state of mind after being ordered to travel through South Armagh and over the Border. Breen he said was fearful not of a Garda but because he knew from his intelligence sources that he was a high priority target and in imminent danger. McBride said Breen told him he was getting his affairs in order. Frazer told Smithwick that he – Smithwick – was being manipulated by the British Security services, ‘I would love your honour to be sitting in Newtownhamilton and doing this inquiry, because I would guarantee that you would get at the truth. The problem is the British Government have not put all the facts in front of you’. Frazer realised too late that getting at the truth had never been the object of the exercise
Published in Village magazine, December 2019 and amended primarily to reflect allegations of Robert Nairac’s involvement in the Miami Showband murders.
⏩Deirdre Younge is a writer/producer/director.