Joe Fenton, The RUC Special Branch And The Destruction Of The Belfast IRA

Back in the late 1980’s I got to know a guy who was an Inspector in the RUC, a very interesting character, a Catholic policeman incidentally, who could sometimes be quite forthright in his views on the force he worked for.

That he didn’t care who knew we were friendly was evident by an invitation one time to meet in the canteen of the police station where he was headquartered, in full sight of colleagues and canteen staff. I could never work out why but I suspect he had a reason.

One particular evening he brought a friend with him, another Catholic cop who was a constable. We chatted about the Loughgall ambush which had happened not long before and the intelligence war against the IRA and then he said something quite startling.

The greatest fear a policeman could have, he said, was to discover that the Special Branch was tailing him. Why, I asked? Because that meant there was a strong likelihood that you are about to be shot dead, he replied. His friend, the constable, nodded in agreement.

He explained further. If the Branch were following you, it meant one of two things: they knew the IRA had targeted you and they were allowing the hit to happen to protect an informer, or they were planning to catch the gunman literally red-handed and turn him. Or both.

The possibility that the Branch might be planning to save a life didn’t enter his head or that of his friend; the Branch wasn’t in that business. If they had been, then a friendly warning to change travel patterns or even a convenient posting elsewhere would have been sufficient.

An allegation like that is so serious that for a journalist to publicise it without evidence would be a folly of the highest order. But if the claim is true then the various agencies  – the Special Branch, MI5 and military intelligence – would surely do all they could to keep the evidence deeply buried.

That is why I believe that the IRA leadership is not alone in rejecting an independent and candid recording of their history, such as that carried out at Boston College. If there is to be a recounting of the past then, like the IRA, British spookdom will insist that the part dealing with their activity comes under their control, which is one reason why an agreement on dealing with the past has been so elusive.

Anyway, dear reader, you can understand why I am somewhat predisposed to take seriously the quite extraordinary and deeply disturbing allegations that have emerged in recent days from the family of an RUC officer who was shot dead by the IRA in a family-owned ice cream shop in South Belfast in October 1988.

The ice cream store in south Belfast where the IRA killed John Larmour

The ice cream store in south Belfast where the IRA killed RUC Constable John Larmour (inset)

In a book called They Killed The Ice Cream Man, written by George Larmour, the brother of the dead policeman, John Larmour, and based on research by the slain man’s son, Gavin, who was just 13 when his father died, the RUC Special Branch stands accused of using the murder of one of their own colleagues to recruit his killer as an agent.

Just as my RUC Inspector friend said they might do all those years ago.

Gavin Larmour, now 41, has spent years investigating his father’s murder. Not only does he accuse the RUC in 1988 of failing to probe his father’s death, he says the North’s Police Ombudsman has been sitting on a report into the killing because of the sensational and damaging details. The report has taken the Ombudsman’s office a decade to compile.

In an extensive interview last week with The Belfast Telegraph, he told reporter Suzanne Breen:

From I was 16 years old, I was ringing up the Chief Constable’s office, asking them questions. I have been at this a quarter-of-a-century. I’ve travelled to Holland to talk to the police there. I’ve gone to London to meet legal experts. I’ve traced as many of dad’s colleagues as possible to find out what they knew.

I’ve made the phone calls, knocked on doors and got on planes because the police, as an organisation, didn’t do their job. There is all this lip-service paid to victims, but no practical help was ever given to me. I wasn’t even offered counselling.

My dad’s inquest took place eight months after he was killed. My mum and I weren’t even informed that it was happening. We had to pay to get a copy of the transcript.

Gavin Larmour - spent years investigating his father's murder and accuses the RUC Special Branch of recruiting his father's killer as an agent

Gavin Larmour – spent years investigating his father’s murder and accuses the RUC Special Branch of recruiting his father’s killer as an agent

Gavin Larmour’s allegation concerning the Special Branch behaviour is political dynamite.

He told the Telegraph that some time after the killing, RUC detectives confronted his father’s killer with evidence of his involvement and persuaded him to become an informer. They also paid him £65,000.

The killer subsequently became commander of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and after an Army Convention held in 1997, was nominated to a seat on the IRA’s ruling Army Council by Gerry Adams.

The Belfast Telegraph account continued:

As Belfast Brigade commander, the republican named by Gavin was responsible for high-profile bombings that devastated Belfast city centre in the 1990s. After the ceasefire he was regarded as a militant critic of the Adams-McGuinness faction.

However, at a key IRA convention in 1997, when he was expected to support a hardline challenge led by quartermaster general Michael McKevitt, he dramatically changed sides at the last minute and supported the leadership.

That description is taken from ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ in which I also describe the man as one of the three ‘sharpest critics of the Adams’ (peace process) strategy’ inside the IRA, post the 1994 ceasefire, alongside Michael McKevitt, the Quarter Master General and Frank McGuinness, the Director of Engineering.

His identity will be immediately recognisable to most republicans and many in the media. Although Gavin Larmour named him to The Belfast Telegraph, the paper decided not to publish it. Nor will

If the allegation is true however some very serious questions follow, every one of which the authorities can be relied upon to avoid answering:

♦          Did the RUC Special Branch give succour to IRA opponents of the peace process; was this general British intelligence policy and if so why did this happen and what form did it take?

♦          How many people did the Special Branch allow to be killed or wounded so as to maintain the cover of this agent? How many bombings were allowed to happen? Did the intelligence authorities have foreknowledge, for example, of the plan to murder retired policeman James Sefton and his wife Ellen in June 1990 and did they allow it to happen?

♦          What other sections of the intelligence apparatus were aware of the recruitment of this agent? Was MI5 aware, or British military intelligence? Did they share the product derived from his secret work? Was the Joint Intelligence Committee in Whitehall aware of this agent? Were the prime ministers of the day, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair in on the secret?

Another series of questions follow from what Gavin Larmour says of the recruitment of the agent, i.e. the nature of the evidence presented to him by the RUC which allegedly persuaded him to change sides.

Estate agent Joe Fenton provided the IRA with safe houses which were then bugged by MI5

Estate agent Joe Fenton provided the IRA with safe houses which were then bugged by MI5

According to the account Larmour gave The Belfast Telegraph, the IRA gang that killed his father used a house that had been bugged by MI5, which controls electronic surveillance in Northern Ireland. When confronted with taped evidence of his involvement the soon-to-be IRA commander then agreed to betray his organisation.

The question that leaps out, demanding an answer is this: when did the Special Branch listen to the incriminating tape? Was it before John Larmour’s killing or afterwards? If it was before then did they allow the murder to take place knowing this would provide an opportunity to turn a potentially valuable agent?

The house in which the IRA unit planned the killing of Constable Larmour was provided, his son says, by Joe Fenton, a West Belfast estate agent who was himself shot dead as an informer by the IRA four months after the shooting at the ice cream store, in February 1989.

This part of Gavin Larmour’s account is given credibility by the interview that the late Brendan Hughes gave to Boston College. Hughes was in charge of IRA internal security at the time and he discovered that Fenton was providing so-called safe houses to the IRA throughout West Belfast. In one of these houses, occupied by the then Belfast Commander, Harry Burns, a bug was discovered.

Brendan Hughes believed Joe Fenton was killed before he could be properly questioned to protect a more senior agent in the IRA

Brendan Hughes believed Joe Fenton was killed before he could be properly questioned to protect a more senior agent in the IRA

So both accounts, Hughes’ and Larmour’s, have Fenton providing houses to the IRA which were bugged by British intelligence.

After this discovery, Joe Fenton went on the run to England but returned after 10 days or so. Hughes says he believes Fenton was assured by his handlers that his friend Harry Burns would sort out his difficulty, but if they did then they lied. Fenton was immediately arrested and shot dead by the IRA.

Hughes believed that Fenton was killed so quickly to protect a more senior agent in the IRA. Had he got his way Hughes says he would have taken Fenton away for lengthy and extensive interrogation in order to measure the damage done to the IRA – and clues to the identities of other informers. The incident scared Hughes and began the end of his life in the IRA.

If Hughes’ account is accurate, and Fenton’s handlers had assured him he would be safe in Belfast when he wouldn’t be, doesn’t that make them complicit in his murder, sending him back to Belfast knowing, even hoping that he was likely to be killed so that their more important agent(s) would survive undetected?

The final question is this: under what United Kingdom law are agents of the state free to procure murder without penalty?

Don’t expect an answer to this or the other questions posed in this article any time soon, least of all from the PSNI’s Legacy Unit.

The remains of Joe Fenton, found in a West Belfast housing estate in February 1989

The remains of Joe Fenton (far left), found in a West Belfast housing estate in February 1989

Below is a slightly edited version of the section of Brendan Hughes’ Boston College interview dealing with Joe Fenton. The names of three people have been redacted as they are still alive.


Q/ One thing is you were working in intelligence; did that bring you into the security department at all, internal security?

A/ To some degree, yeah.

Q/ Because there is a celebrated case in Belfast that I would like someone at some point to throw light upon and that’s the case of Joe Fenton. And Joe Fenton was a major informer that appeared to ruin much of what happened in Belfast. And you had major security concerns at the time.

A/ Well, I, I was actually the person that found Fenton. I got out of prison, had nowhere to live, a friend of mine called Fra McCullough brought me to an estate agent called Joe Fenton. They then brought me to a house in Rockville Street. (Interruption).

Q/ Okay?

A/ And I just immediately got suspicious that here’s me out of prison, brought to a house and told that it was mine, it was my house. And I didn’t, I didn’t take it, I didn’t take the house. But I instinctively, I got suspicious. And then I started to look into the background of this…

Q/ Was Fenton the estate agent?

A/ He was the estate agent, right, who other people did he get houses for? Then a house was raided in that, in that area, in the Rockville Street area, and a
bug was found in the house. It was the house that Fenton – it was raided by the IRA by the way, not the British. Then people began to look, or I began to get
people to look at the other people that, that Fenton got houses for…

Q/ Did the IRA find a bug in this house?

A/ Yes.

Q/ And was it a key house?

A/ It was a key house, it was a man called Harry Burns.

Q/ Who is now dead.

A/ Who is now dead.

Q/ But he was a senior player with the IRA in Belfast.

A/ He was, he was O/C of Belfast Brigade, right, and he run the whole explosives smuggling operation from across the border and loads of people were
getting caught.

Q/ There’s people have said that even when Harry wasn’t running Belfast there was nothing moved in it without his say-so.

A/ That’s right, that’s true. But I, I looked at, because of my job as internal security I was looking at the connection and I found the connection between
Harry Burns and Fenton. Fenton was supplying the property and sometimes also the cars that were sent across the border to bring stuff in. And I had a major
run-in with Harry Burns in his own house. His wife was sitting in the back room and we had a, Harry was, was a, a guy that was, he was, he was an operator, he, he lost an arm, lost a leg, I think he lost an eye as well.

Q/ Cushendall 1976 when his own bomb exploded in a shop doorway?

A/ That’s right, that’s right. But I argued that there was a security problem with Fenton. Harry swore by Fenton. But then what Harry done, Harry warned Fenton that I was checking into him. Fenton done a runner, he went to England on the pretext of going to a boxing match and was away for about ten or eleven days. I was running internal security on the GHQ staff. Fenton returned. He was told to return by his handlers, that everything was alright, Harry would fix it up. Fenton returned. I was in Dublin, I think, when Fenton returned, and I heard it on the news – Fenton was found dead. Fenton returned
to Belfast and was immediately executed by the IRA before I could get to interrogate him. I believe he was, he was executed to protect someone bigger
than him. I believe he was executed by the person in the IRA who was handling him. And I believed that the, the Special Branch threw Fenton to the wolves to
protect the major informer. I think Fenton was a runner more than a fucking informer and – so the whole murky business I found myself in, I got actually very frightened that I got, I discovered something here that was murky, was high
level. And I was getting no help from anybody in Belfast. I mean, people like XX, XY – Fenton got them their houses. And there was half a dozen others. All the houses were bugged. And that was the precondition that they got the houses that the Brits went in first and bugged the house. So the whole thing in Belfast was, was rotten, was rotten. And you were taking your life in your hands, just, just by asking the question.

Q/ Do you think that there was someone didn’t want the security department people such as yourself to perform a, an extensive interrogation of Joe Fenton
for the reason that Joe Fenton may have…?

A/ Yeah.

Q/ …divulged to you information which would have compromised these senior figures that were in the IRA?

A/ I believe that if I had have got my hands on Joe Fenton the first thing I would have done was put him in a car, take him across the border, and hold him
for as long as possible. Because there was other people involved, there was higher ranking people involved in this intelligence thing. As I say, Joe Fenton was only a, he was only a squirrel, right. And somebody, somebody had Fenton executed before I could get talking to him. And I have no doubt if I had have got my hands on Fenton I could have unravelled a whole lot of, I might have got myself killed. But I was largely based in Dublin by that time and I had a squad of people around me in Dublin and Kerry who I trusted. I didn’t trust Belfast, Belfast was rotten. When I say “rotten”, it was, it was fucking riddled with leaks, with informers, and nobody was making an attempt. You had people like Paddy Moneghan, YY, lifting wee lads off the street and taking them away and torturing them, but not really looking at the overall picture where the major informers are. People were getting arrested, people were not getting arrested, people who you’d have imagined should have been arrested were not getting arrested. It was only the main, main players getting arrested and getting taken out, when I say ‘taken out’ and getting shot.

Q/ But the army council must also have approved Fenton or at least one of them must have approved him getting killed. And I suppose they went on the evidence that was presented to them by the people that wanted him killed.

A/ By Belfast Brigade. Aha. I mean, they’d other people there who are still alive who probably know more about, who, who definitely do know more
about the execution of Fenton than I do. I wasn’t there when he was executed. If I had have been there he wouldn’t have been executed as quick as he was.
Somebody had him executed to cover up someone else. I’ve an idea who it was but I don’t know exactly who it was.

Q/ Do you want to, do you want to say? Its only, It’s a question I have to ask but you don’t have to…

A/ I think XY was involved in it, in the execution of Fenton.

Q/ XY certainly benefited from Fenton’s involvement in the IRA. There is, it has been said, I’ve talked to people before and it has been said that Fenton’s execution came as a result of people whom had massive dealings with him and who needed him out of the way in case he exposed them.

A/ I have no doubt that is the truth.

Q/ But was XY and Cleaky Clarke not involved in robberies at that time, was there not something dodgy going on there?

A/ There, there was, there was, I mean, I, and as I say, I wasn’t there at the time, right, but there has been accusations that XY, Cleaky and other
people were involved in dodgy jobs. Fenton was the key to it, he was the fencer, he was the money launderer, he was the setter-up of the jobs, and all these people, Fenton could have exposed all this. And I think XY would have been one of the big exposed. But again Fenton was the key, Fenton was taken out. Fenton was a British agent, given a free hand, he took on board other people. As I say, I, I’m, I hate to say this, right, I mean, XX was one of the people who was involved with Fenton and there are people there still who can answer these questions better than I can because I just touched on it, and Fenton was taken out, Fenton was the key to getting into the middle of this. And he was taken out when I was outside of Belfast, when I was in Dublin, Fenton was killed.

Q/ Is that what, is it around that time that you began to have suspicions which maybe led to you eventually getting out of the whole thing or at least
withdrawing from it?

A/ Yeah, yeah.

Q/ Coz I remember you saying one time to me before that you were going through a period then when you felt very paranoid about it.

A/ Yeah. It was, I just didn’t know who to trust anymore. The, the people who I trusted with my life I couldn’t trust anymore. People like Gerry Adams I
couldn’t trust, XY I definitely never ever trusted, and the other people around me in Belfast I just could not. And I knew these things were going on, I knew there were robberies taking place, I knew people were getting immunity from arrest, I knew there were touts there, I knew there were corruption there. And that’s what led me to go to Dublin. I mean, I, I, I was living in Iveagh and I got the hell out of it. I was living with a girl and I moved to Dublin to get away from all that because I knew my life was in danger, nothing loyalist, nothing British, but from IRA personnel.

Q/ It was that bad?

A/ It was that bad, it was that bad for me, right, other people certainly didn’t see it, but I had touched into something that, touched into the corruption
in my own movement and, and I knew there were people there who needed to protect their interests. I couldn’t find the main mover in it. I already mentioned a couple of names who were involved in it. The main mover was, I just seen so much corruption there and I knew that I wasn’t getting any support from anyone and I knew I had to get out.

Q/ Did you, did you confide these problems in any senior leadership figures?

A/ I confided them to Gerry Adams, yes.

Q/ What was Gerry’s response?

A/ That I was exaggerating, that, that there might be a wee bit of fiddling going on but there’s not the sort of scale that I was advocating going on. I
confronted XY in Gerry Adams’ house and, as I say, there was a major, major blow-up, and XY walked out. I sat and talked to Gerry and Gerry says I was getting a wee bit paranoid.

Q/ That you were out of order because it was XY?

A/ Yeah, yeah. So after that I left, I, I went to Dublin and I lived in Dublin for a while.

Q/ But you didn’t leave the IRA?

A/ I didn’t leave the IRA, no.

Q/ Because when I got out of jail which was ’93 you were still very much in the IRA.

A/ Yeah, no, I was, I, I moved onto the GHQ staff. I got out of Belfast, I was actually asked by Pat Doherty who was chief of intelligence to go back to Belfast to try and clean it up, to try and clean Belfast up, and I refused. I said, ‘If I go back in there and start digging up shit, I’ll not last, I’ll not last a week.’ He asked me to go in to try and clean it up coz he realised how dirty it was, how corrupt it
was. But he wasn’t prepared to go to Belfast and do it, (laughter) he wanted me to go.

Q/ Well, at the same time, in his defence, he would not have had the means of getting around…

A/ He wouldn’t have had the insight, he wouldn’t have, he wouldn’t…

Q/ …wouldn’t have known the people.

A/ …that, that’s true, that’s true.

Q/ So did you, was that more or less the beginning of the end…?

A/ It was for me.

10 responses to “Joe Fenton, The RUC Special Branch And The Destruction Of The Belfast IRA

  1. Pingback: Joe Fenton, The RUC Special Branch And The Destruction Of The Belfast IRA | seftonblog

  2. That’s a fascinating story … not least regarding the different reactions from Pat Doherty and Gerry Adams to Brendan Hughes’s concerns about Mr XY and the state of the IRA in Belfast.

  3. Agree with Cormac. Absolutely fascinating. Alternative take on your question “Did the RUC Special Branch give succour to IRA opponents of the peace process?” Maybe Special Branch knew that by XY *appearing* to be a hardliner would ultimately carry far more weight when he changed his mind and supported the Adams-McGuinness strategy, than if he’d been onside from the start.

    • agree mike, but all sorts of permutations are possible. we’ve come a long way from ‘john hume sat gerry adams down and talked some sense into his head’……

    • I would say the mentioned hardliner isn’t XY but XX. XY rather is another “former IRA commander [with] powerful family connections in the republican movement. That his brother sat on the Army Council and was a senior member of Sinn Fein may have saved his life.” (Moloney, E.: A Secret History of the IRA, 2nd edition, New York 2007, p. 28ff.)

  4. But wasn’t XY questioned by the PSNI recently? If they thought he was involved in that murder then wouldn’t they have done a Dennis Donaldson on him?

  5. Is it possible that XY was the person Martin Dillon interviewed for ‘The Dirty War’ and claimed that Fenton was providing the IRA with information on informers?


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