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5 January 2006 Edition

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Books - Into The Dark: Thirty Years In The RUC

M O Caochlai reviews Johnty Brown's revalatory account of his time in the RUC

By Johnston Brown

Published by

Gill & Macmillan

Price €23

As a child Johnston Brown would, like the rest of his family, suffer regular beatings from his father. He always had a great admiration for the police officers who were called to the house, and he was determined that when he grew up he would become a policeman himself to protect the weak against the bullies. And so it came to pass that on the fateful day of 30 January 1972, Bloody Sunday, Johnston Brown joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

'Johnty' Brown, as he became known, took the view that all lawbreakers should be treated similarly and this attitude soon got him into trouble. He spotted three armed UVF members in Rathcoole, whom he arrested and disarmed. While some of his colleagues congratulated him on his efforts, not everyone was happy. A couple of fellow CID detectives took him into a back room and gave him a severe hiding. Not only had he betrayed his own, but the captured weapons turned out to be the property of the RUC. At this point a lot of people would have decided either not to rock the boat or to change careers, but not Brown.

Into the Dark is Johnty Brown's story of three decades in the RUC and it provides a remarkable insight into the force. While much of his time was spent fighting republicans, the book is more concerned with his dealings with loyalists, and with the Special Branch, whom he came to understand had a curious relationship with the loyalist paramilitaries. While some of his writing is clichéd — Andersonstown is a 'notorious republican area' and Rathcoole a 'notorious loyalist area' — the story as a whole is an interesting one, and he has some good tales to tell.

At the heart of the book is the story of Agent Wesley, the code name for Ken Barrett. Barrett contacted Brown offering to work as an informant and in the course of an interview casually confessed -- more accurately boasted — that he had murdered the solicitor Pat Finucane. Brown was determined to put Barrett away for the murder, but it soon became clear that Agent Wesley was being protected by RUC Special Branch. Not only was Barrett shielded, but the Branch also sought to frame Brown for having the temerity to challenge their authority. Brown also seems to believe that Special Branch officers were behind an attempt to assassinate him. By the end of the story when Brown somewhat reluctantly gave evidence to the Stevens inquiry, his position within the RUC had become untenable.

Reading the book you keep wondering at what point will our detective hero realise what's going on — that the organisation was rotten to the core. But the penny never drops. Johnty Brown is clearly not lacking in courage and he is honest, up to a point. The point at which he ceases to be honest is when it comes to examining the role of the British state in the conflict. There is no mention in the book of British Military Intelligence, despite the fact that it is now public knowledge that it was one of their agents, Brian Nelson, who directed the assassination of Pat Finucane in the first place. Were Brown and people like him to face up to the role of the British state in directing sectarian killings, their whole credo would crumble.

Colonel Kerr, the man in charge of that Military Intelligence Unit, the FRU, is no longer serving in Ireland. He is currently assigned to Iraq where he is no doubt using the skills honed in Ireland to 'advance the democratic process' there.

It is striking that despite all the talk in Britain about 'institutional racism' following the Stephen Lawrence murder, the issue of 'institutional sectarianism' in the North's police force is still a taboo topic in Ireland. Brown's book should help to open up that discussion.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
  • This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
  • Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
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