2 April 1998 Edition
Revealed: British Army ran UDA death squads
Documents prove British government sanctioned murders
By Laura Friel
A secret unit of the British Army directed loyalist death squad attacks against Irish Republicans and nationalists in what the British media have dubbed `assassination by proxy'.
This latest collusion revelation follows the publication of details from official British Army records which document meetings between Brian Nelson, an undercover British Army agent infiltrated into the UDA, and his British Military Intelligence handlers. In an exclusive, Britain's Sunday Telegraph reporters John Ware and Geoff Seed assert, ``we have seen secret files that, for the first time, provide evidence that the British Army's Force Research Unit, a branch of Military Intelligence responsible for running agents in Northern Ireland, was complicit in a series of murders carried out by the UDA between 1987 and 1990.''
Systematic British collusion in covert murder campaigns against their political and military opponents in the Six Counties has been alleged for over twenty years. Last weekend, what Republicans knew, and nationalist Ireland long suspected, became a matter of public record with the Sunday Telegraph's publication of ``the first documentry evidence to suggest that an Army unit practised `assassination by proxy'.''
According to the Telegraph, the Force Research Unit was set up by British Military Intelligence to run agents in the Six Counties. It consisted of fifty officers and soldiers who ran more than 100 agents, of which less than a handful have subsequently come to light.
In a directive issued on 26 July 1986 the British Commander of Land Forces described the FRU's role as ``to complement the efforts of the RUC's Special Branch who are responsible for the exploitation of all intelligence.'' In 1990, in the aftermath of the Steven's Inquiry, the FRU was disbanded, only to be reconstituted under a new name.
Brian Nelson was probably one of the unit's most important agents. He would also prove to be their nemesis. Arrested during the Steven's Inquiry, Nelson's refusal to hide his role as a British agent inadvertently exposed the most secret operation of British rule in Ireland to public scrutiny. The ensuing cover-up involved RUC Special Branch, British Intelligence, a Chief Constable, two Judges, the Attorney General and a Prime Minister.
The evidence presented by the Telegraph focuses on the UDA murders of Gerard Slane and Terence McDaid and the attempted murder of Belfast Sinn Fein Councillor Alex Maskey. Through the scrutiny of documented records of Nelson's meetings with members of the Force Research Unit, the Telegraph assessed the relationship between agent and handlers, and more significantly between UDA death squads and the British Army.
The British Army knew on at least 92 occasions who the UDA was to assassinate, with a very good indication of where and when, but the RUC Special Branch could only show evidence of two occasions when they received information specific enough to take preventative action
The extent of the Nelson conspiracy is perhaps best judged by the lengths to which the British establishment was prepared to go in order to protect their agent and avoid a full disclosure of crown force collusion in loyalist killings. In the summer of `89, the UDA tried to substantiate its claim that loyalist murder victim Loughlin Maginn was a member of the IRA by publishing a confidential crown force document which identified Maginn as an ``IRA Intelligence Officer''. It was a chance disclosure which would eventually lead to Brian Nelson.
By September 1989 loyalist paramilitaries had released to the media the names, photographs and addresses of over 250 nationalists identified as `suspects' from crown force intelligence files. In a desperate attempt to stem the tide of information being leaked to the press, the British government announced an inquiry, threatening prosecutions for anyone discovered handling leaked information.
John Stevens, deputy chief constable in Cambridgeshire, was appointed to head the inquiry. The immediate reaction of Nelson's handlers in the FRU was to panic and attempt to cover their tracks. According to documents leaked to the Telegraph, seven days after Stevens' appointment one of Nelson's handlers wrote on Nelson's file that he ``was instructed never to mention his work for this office. Even if an officer from Special Branch...may state that he knew he (Nelson) was an agent, (Nelson) was to deny all knowledge.''
The British Army swiftly took possession of a suitcase of Nelson's `P' cards. Colonel `J', the FRU commanding officer, later denied intending to obstruct the inquiry; it was simply to ensure ``the UDA no longer had access'' so that the information ``could not be used for terrorist purposes.'' However, other documents show the unit intended to return the cards to Nelson as soon as the ``political temperature regarding the controversy'' died down. But the controversay didn't die down. For a second time a seemingly minor discovery would play a significant role.
The Stevens' team, in an apparent attempt to protect the British Army and RUC, directed their investigation first towards the UDR and later more rigorously towards loyalist recipients of leaked information. The discovery on a recovered document of a Brian Nelson's fingerprint (it was on RUC files because of his conviction in the 1970s for taking part in a sectarian killing) inadvertently led the inquiry back to the British Army.
The team intended to arrest Nelson on the relatively minor charge of possession of information likely to be useful to terrorists. The arrest was planned for 11 January. On the night of 10 January, Nelson fled to England. On the same night, four officers from the inquiry team returned to their offices in an RUC barracks to find the room in flames. An RUC investigation into the fire did not mention that two fire alarms failed to work. The report insisted there was ``nothing sinister'' in the failure of the telephones when a member of the Stevens' team attempted to ring the fire brigade. The room was gutted and the evidence gathered by the inquiry destroyed.
When Brian Nelson was arrested as he arrived back in Belfast, the FRU's anonimity must have seemed assured. Inexplicably, Nelson ignored his handlers' instructions and in detailed statements revealed his role as a British agent to the Stevens' team. The cat was out of the bag. The cover-up that ensued is a clear indication that collusion with loyalist death squads cut to the very heart of the British establishment.
Requests by the Stevens' team for documents relevant to the case were denied by the British Army. Ironically, with the wholesale destruction of their investigation, Nelson became their only lead. Faced with the humiliation of total failure perhaps reinvigorated the inquiry team.
When Stevens' deputy Vincent McFadden threatened to arrest senior British Army officers and charge them with obstruction, Sir John Walters, General Officer Commanding forces in the Six Counties was abruptly summoned back from leave. The documents were handed over. According to the Telegraph when Colonel `J' was confronted with his own units' records, he admitted Nelson had been recruited to enable the UDA to concentrate its murder campaign against republicans. But `J' claimed it was a strategy designed to save lives. The logic was convoluted. Assassinations of specific republican targets took longer for the UDA to organise and therefore the British Army had a greater opportunity of thwarting the attempt. Colonel `J' claimed the names of those under threat from UDA assassins were passed to RUC Special Branch. Notes from the FRU unit indicated that the British Army knew on at least 92 occasions who the UDA was to assassinate, with a very good indication of where and when. RUC Special Branch could only show evidence of two occasions when they received information specific enough to take preventative action.
Colonel `J' also claimed Nelson's activities were ``carefully monitored'' by MI5 and his file was ``controlled by a Security Service Secretary'' while two MI5 officers in Belfast had ``full unimpeded access to all the files''. MI5 denied all knowledge.
The Stevens' team compiled the final draft of its report but the British government refused to make public the findings. According to the Telegraph, the report presented evidence which showed that the British Army's FRU had colluded with the UDA to target people identified by the unit as members of the IRA. The file was passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Despite the evidence the DPP refused to prosecute Colonel `J' or any members of the FRU involved with Nelson. Only Nelson would be charged.
In the week preceding the trial the then British Prime Minister, John Major, flew for an unscheduled visit to the Six Counties where he met the trial Judge, Basil Kelly, and the Lord Chief Justice, Brian Hutton. It was a telling parallel of the meeting between Ted Heath and Widgery on the eve of the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
Journalist John Ware, at the time working for the BBC, dubbed Nelson's trial as ``the army's Watergate'', but he had underestimated the ability of the British establishment to cover its tracks. A last minute deal was struck between the office of the then Attorney General, Patrick Mayhew, the North's judiciary and Nelson himself. Nelson agreed to plead guilty to five lesser charges. There was no trial.
In court Colonel `J', his identity protected behind a screen, claimed Nelson's role had saved lives. The Judge accepted this. Nelson was described by British Minister of Defence, Tom King as a ``valuable agent'', a ``courageous hero'' by Colonel `J' and as ``a man of the greatest courage'' by trial Judge Kelly. Nelson served 6 years of a ten year sentence. He lives in England, and according to the Telegraph, is still on the payroll of the British army. Colonel `J' has been awarded the OBE and some of Nelson's handlers have been promoted and given medals. One now lectures on ``agent handling'' to new recruits to British Military Intelligence, but the story of Brian Nelson will not go away. At the trial, Colonel `J' portrayed Nelson's role as informer within the UDA passing information about loyalist assassins to the British army. It is now clear that Nelson was the conduit through which the British Army passed information to the UDA, orchestrating, not thwarting their campaign of terror.
The murders of Gerard Slane and Terence McDaid
Belfast Catholic Gerard Slane was shot dead by two UDA assassins on 23 September 1988. The murder was organised and planned by Brian Nelson who provided the UDA gunmen with a picture of Slane and his address. Nelson also advised the UDA how to conduct surveillance of Slane in preparation for his murder.
A meeting prior to the Slane killing documented in an offical British Army `contact record' highlights Nelson's role as an agent. Colonel `J' Commanding Officer of the FRU, during Nelson's trial, declared that agents were run within the UDA in order to save lives. It was the cornerstone of Nelson's defence. Secret files leaked to the Telegraph suggest quite a different role envisaged for Nelson by his handlers.
One document, dated 4 August 1988, states that Nelson's ``appointment enables him to make sure that sectarian killings are not carried out, but that proper targeting of Provisional IRA members takes place prior to any shooting.''
Through Brian Nelson, British Military Intelligence updated and reorganised leaked crown force intelligence on prominent Republicans and people suspected of being members of the IRA. With help from his handlers, Nelson drew up a series of detailed profiles of potential targets for assassination known as `Personality' or `P' cards. As one of Nelson's handlers noted, UDA killings would, as a consequence, be made on the basis of what the British Army considered to be ``proper targeting''. Following a meeting two weeks after the murder of Gerard Slane, Nelson's handlers reiterated the point, ``the level of targeting information is already of a high quality and recent attacks have proven this accurate.'' As the Telegraph notes ``there is no suggestion that Nelson saw his role as a British Army agent as anything other than ensuring that UDA assassins targeted IRA activists''.
The British Army not only plotted with Nelson in the assassination of republican targets, but when the death squads inadvertently murdered the `wrong' man, there was no remorse. The Force Research Unit dealt in death, despite the public protestations of Colonel `J', saving lives - `innocent' or otherwise - was beyond its remit. The case of Terence McDaid clearly illustrates this.
According to the Telegraph Nelson had selected Declan McDaid as a target for UDA assassin `Winkie' Dodds, but a wrong address led to the killing of his brother Terence. Nelson informed his handlers immediately. ``Nelson's handler was neither angry nor upset...Indeed, the handler seems not even to have been alarmed. His reaction was simply to placate Nelson by telling him that Terence McDaid had been `traced as Provisional IRA'.'', a ``reassurance'' which the Telegraph acknowledges as ``completely bogus''.
The targeting of Alex Maskey
One of the most telling documents exposed by the Telegraph is the transcript of Nelson's telephone conversation with his handler after a failed attempt to murder Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Alex Maskey. ``He (Maskey) just missed death by 20 seconds,'' says Nelson, ``I was involved up to my neck with a Mr Heckler (code for a Heckler and Koch machine gun). I'm mad. We only missed him by 20 seconds.'' The British army handler asks, ``Had he gone?'', to which Nelson replies, ``Yeah. It's because I took so long to set it up. We had differenct cars and a Mr Heckler.'' The handler asks, ``Did you go with Mr Heckler?''. ``No'', replies Nelson. The handler continues, ``Look, if you were caught there was nothing we could have done.'' ``I wasn't going to get caught,'' says Nelson. ``What's going to happen now?'' asks the handler. ``If he's there next Sunday, he's going down, `` replies Nelson.
As the Telegraph points out, ``as with other cases, the representative of the British Army does not criticise Nelson for attempting to assassinate Maskey, ``his only concern is that Nelson might be caught in the act. The conversation ends with a further threat to the Sinn Féin Councillor's life. ``The natural response of anyone who did not want Maskey to be killed would be to do everything possible to prevent the assassination from going ahead,'' writes the Telegraph, ``But no one in the Army Force Research Unit did.''
Nelson and the loyalist weapons
According to the Telegraph a combination of personal diaries and British Army's own records show that Brian Nelson was involved in at least 15 murders, 15 attempted murders and 62 conspiracies to murder, but Nelson's role as a British agent is far greater than suggested by the article. Nelson was also a key player in securing weaponry which continues to sustain loyalist death squads to the present day. In the summer of 1985, Nelson travelled to South Africa where, assisted by a second British agent, Charles Simpson, Nelson negotiated a deal with an Armscor agent of the Apartheid regime.
By 1985, Nelson had been a British agent for at least ten years. Colonel `J' of the FRU did not recruit Nelson in 1987, he simply reactivated a long established relationship with British Military Intelligence. By December 1987 the arms deal was complete and ready to be dispatched. Nelson informed his British handlers of developments at every stage. No action was taken to intercept the shipment. A hugh consignment of arms was landed along the coast of County Down. Two hundred AK47 automatic rifles, 90 Browning pistols, around 500 fragmentation grenades, 30,000 rounds of ammunition and a dozen RPG7 rocket launchers disappeared without trace.
In 1992, the British magazine Private Eye claimed that Nelson's visit to South Africa to secure arms for loyalist paramilitaries had been cleared not only by the Minister of Defence but by an unnamed government minister. It was claimed the DPP deal with Nelson at his trial was intended to prevent the disclosure of the Minister's role and protect his identity. In the six years before the arrival of the South African weapons, from January `82 to December `87 loyalist murder gangs killed 71 people. In the six years following, from January `88 to September `94, loyalists killed 229 people, many with the weapons secured by Nelson with the approval of the British.