I nearly fell off my chair last night when I noticed this headline in The Guardian: Northern Ireland police appeal for information on covert British army unit.
A policeman called DCI Peter Montgomery had this to say to the media:
We have been carrying out enquiries in relation to a number of shooting incidents between April and September 1972, during which two people were killed and a number of others were injured. We are looking at these incidents as part of an overall investigation into the activities of the Military Reaction Force at the time.
We know these events took place a long time ago and we know they took place during one of the worst years of the Troubles when many shootings occurred but we believe there are people out there who can help us progress this investigation and we are appealing to them to contact us.
Upon closer examination this was, in effect, less an appeal for help than an announcement by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), that a long overdue investigation had been launched into the activities of the Military Reaction Force, or MRF, an acronym that became a somewhat fearsome shorthand in the Belfast of the early 1970’s, for an undercover unit that in part specialised in drive-by shootings of people they suspected of being involved in the Provos and other ‘subversive’ groups.
The other bit of the MRF concerned itself with agent-running. It recruited widely from all the paramilitary groups, Loyalist as well as Republican, and was the first successful effort to infiltrate the IRA by the British security forces.
(I once met a former MRF paramilitary recruit – they were called ‘Freds’ internally – at the very outset of my journalistic career way back in 1978/79. A former member of the Official IRA from the lower Ormeau Road district, he told me he had helped the MRF identify fellow Officials around his Battalion area. He then graduated from the MRF to the Rhodesian Armed Forces, in which capacity he helped corral rural Blacks into heavily fortified villages, rather as the Americans had done in rural Vietnam, to frustrate hostile forces seeking food, arms dumps and general help from sympathetic locals. That puts the MRF into perspective, I think.)
I call this a PSNI announcement rather than an appeal to the public in Northern Ireland for information about the MRF, because the latter would be rather like asking people who may have been alive during World War II to come forward with any information they may have on the activities of the Wehrmacht in continental Europe between 1939-45.
There is no need for witnesses. It is all there in various forms and places that anyone with subpoena and arrest powers, like the PSNI, can access.
To begin with there is a virtual mountain of books, newspaper articles and television documentaries dealing in whole or in part with the MRF’s activities. Then there are all those files, decaying away in Ministry of Defence archives in various parts of England. And finally there are still living, breathing soldiers, some at a high level, who were involved with the MRF, who could be asked to come down to the local station for a few pertinent questions.
What the good folk of Belfast can contribute to this effort, aside from statements like: ‘I saw a man fire a machine gun from the window of a black taxi’, is beyond me.
I rather suspect that the PSNI announcement is really a public relations move, proclaiming that at long last, after countless allegations over many, many years that the MRF committed murder in Belfast, it has decided to do something, or be seen to be doing something about a squad that could have fitted quite comfortably into Central America circa 1974.
Hence the suspicion that this is the PSNI once again playing peace process politics, as the force did in the wake of the McGuigan killing, confirming that when it comes to political pandering, the PSNI can equal or even exceed the old RUC, albeit at the behest of different masters. (Remember the warning to journalists not to jump to conclusions re IRA responsibility for the McGuigan slaying?) If the PSNI charges people with MRF-inspired murders I’ll be happy to review my opinion. But I think I’ll be okay on that one.
Anyway, in the unlikely event that the PSNI really don’t know that much about the MRF, and really do need information from the public, here are a few tips on where to go and who to talk to from this member of the public.
Memo to PSNI:
- There is a chap called Frank Kitson. You really need to talk to him. He was the commander of 39 Brigade, i.e. Belfast, in much of the period you are interested in. Furthermore most of the accounts of this time say that Kitson, who retired in the late 1980’s with the rank of General, actually set up the MRF and based it on his counter insurgency experiences in Kenya. So he must know an awful lot. He is very old now, about 91 years or so, but apparently still of sound mind. But go easy. I wouldn’t recommend the Antrim Suite for him but he he’s a member of a club or two in the West End that would do just as well. He has a Wikipedia page, which you should also read, and I would suggest he really is your go-to-guy as far as the MRF is concerned.
- The National Archives at Kew is an Aladdin’s cave of information, but to get at the really juicy bits, you may have to kick some ass. The problem is that the Ministry of Defence has intervened to overrule the thirty-year rule and close the files that are potentially most relevant to your investigation, for instance the war diaries during 1972 and 1973 for both 39 Brigade, where Kitson was active, and British Army Headquarters, for as much as 100 years, or until the middle or last quarter of this century, when we will all be long gone and the MRF will be a distant and dim memory (and that of course was the probable purpose of the exercise). But to help you in your efforts to access these files, a sight I eagerly await seeing, here is a list of the super-embargoed files – note the contrast with war diaries at the same level in England and Europe. Good luck with this one!
- Then there is this little gem, unearthed by Ian Cobain of The Guardian back in 2013. He wrote a story about ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of boxes of British Army files – 66,000 files in all, it seems – which were transferred from the Army’s Thiepval Barrack HQ, Lisburn in 2009 and secretly stored in a TNT archive depot in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, when instead they should have been made available to Kew to be declassified and, if appropriate, made publicly available. Does this hoard contain valuable nuggets on the MRF? We don’t know, but it sure would be worth finding out. And goodness knows what else you might find. So away you go PSNI, you now have three valuable leads to follow up! How’s that for information from the public?