The more sharp-eyed of my readers would have noticed references in Ian Hurst’s ‘interview’ with General Sir John Wilsey to a ‘Peter Jones’ or ‘PJ’, being the British Army’s handler of ‘Steak Knife’, real name Freddie Scappaticci, who was arguably the most valuable British spy in the IRA’s ranks during the Troubles.
Wilsey was quite open about Jones to Hurst because he had written about him at length in his book: ‘The Ulster Tales: A Tribute To Those Who Served 1969-2000’, which was published in 2011.
The book presents the life stories of ten people who Wilsey regards as having being in one way or another emblematic of Britain’s military involvement in Northern Ireland. His subjects range from the widow of the most senior British army officer killed in the Warrenpoint ambush to the head of British intelligence at Stormont who oversaw the secret links to the IRA’s Martin McGuinness during the peace process.
The book is really very interesting and well worth reading for those addicted to the Troubles. It is available on Kindle, which is handy for those running out of book shelf space.
Wilsey, who writes well, devotes a chapter to Jones under the heading ‘The Source Handler’s Tale’ and presents a story of Scappaticci’s recruitment distinctly at variance from the conventional tale. Scappaticci is never named in the book and is known only by the fictional codename, ‘Kerbstone‘.
The version commonly accepted for years was that Scap, as he was widely known, decided to approach the British after he was badly beaten by a rival in the IRA; his motive was revenge.
Wilsey’s account is entirely different and says the recruitment derived from a drinking friendship Peter Jones had struck up sometime after 1976 when his regiment was posted to North Belfast.
According to Wilsey, Peter Jones had served in Belfast in the early 1960’s with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment and was stationed at Palace Barracks in Holywood, Co Down from where got to know Belfast and its people well.
He met his wife there and made friends outside military circles, getting to know the culture and the language. When the Troubles broke out and he returned to the city it was as a military intelligence officer who knew more about Belfast than most of his peers.
On his own initiative he set out to try to identify possible sources and visited bars and drinking clubs where it was known that republicans socialised.
It was on one such expedition that he met and befriended ‘Kerbstone‘ who initially had no idea who Jones really was. When ‘Kerbstone‘, whose links to the IRA were initially tenuous, began to criticise the IRA’s violence, Jones revealed himself and recruited him. ‘Kerbstone‘ was then offered an important job by the IRA – presumably in its Internal Security Unit. British intelligence had struck gold.
It is of course possible that one reason for ‘Kerbstone‘s’ disenchantment with the IRA was that he had been given a bad beating by someone acting on its behalf but if so, Wilsey makes no mention of such an incident.
Wilsey is less than straight about Scappaticci’s IRA links; he presents him as being initially on the fringes whereas he was significant enough to have been interned in Long Kesh, long before he and Peter Jones crossed paths. Clearly an imperative governing this chapter was not to give away anything that could identify Scappaticci.
On Scap’s recruitment, Wilsey writes: ‘Like a skilled and patient fisherman, PJ read the water well. He bided his time until, intuitively, he judged the moment right to cast his fly. He then hooked and landed his fish. This fish represented the Security Forces’ biggest intelligence breakthrough at the time and, arguably, the Army’s most significant single contribution to the whole campaign. PJ had secured a priceless asset that would run and run.’
One aspect of the ‘Steak Knife’ affair that Wilsey does not touch upon in the chapter is to what extent ownership of Scappaticci gave an advantage to the military in ‘the big swinging dick’ contest with the RUC Special Branch, which was apparently eager to tempt the agent to work for them, or MI5. In the intelligence world ownership of the most valuable sources brought more than bragging rights and it would be surprising if Jones did not share in the glory.
Is Wilsey’s account true? Who knows. Freddie Scappaticci knows, I guess, but I suspect he is not telling. Anyway it is a ripping yarn. Here is the chapter on Peter Jones. Enjoy:
The Source Handler’s Tale
My fourth tour, in 1976, took me back to Belfast, this time as a Company Commander responsible for the troublesome areas adjacent to the New Lodge Road and Crumlin Road in the north of the city. This was a flash-point: one of the places where the Catholic community felt threatened by their neighbours, and vice versa. It was where IRA Volunteers lived, and from where they mounted their attacks.
By now the Troubles had already lasted longer than the Second World War. Pitched battles between the two opposing communities had reduced in frequency and intensity, and the RUC routinely handled whatever residual disorder remained. Reflecting greater confidence in the police, a new policy of ‘Police Primacy’ had been announced whereby the RUC assumed the lead in the fight against terrorism. In other words, the roles of the RUC and Army had been reversed and the Army were subordinated to the RUC, except in the most difficult areas like South Armagh.
The Army now set about revising some of its earlier priorities and methods. Initially, in their urgency to restore law and order, soldiers had been too indiscriminate and vigorous; too many citizens had been unnecessarily inconvenienced and alienated, too many random arrests had been made, and some wholly unjustifiable incidents had occurred, as the Saville Inquiry indicated. A dilemma for the Security Forces in any democracy is to ensure that operations are targeted at those who take up arms against the State, whilst those that do not break the law but may sympathise with the cause of those perpetrating violence are left alone. This requires subtlety, good discipline and, above all, accurate local intelligence.
The absence initially of the latter (for the reasons explained in other Tales) was what the Army had to rectify. Intelligence gathering became a priority; consequently, it became imperative for those who directed and engaged in armed conflict to thwart, by all possible means, the Army’s endeavour to improve its intelligence. They tried, and sometimes succeeded, by smearing the methods and legality of intelligence gathering.
Recording what this concentration on intelligence meant in practice, I want to describe something of the work of Peter Jones of my Regiment, who had once been a young soldier in my platoon. He was one of those dedicated and brave soldiers with the rare aptitude and confidence to work undercover.
His is the Source Handler’s Tale.
* * *
(In this chapter alone some identities have been disguised)
Peter Jones passes unnoticed in a crowd. Yet this dyslexic former Warrant Officer in the British infantry played so significant a role in Britain’s fight against terrorism during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, that his work as a source handler –that is, a recruiter and controller of those prepared to assist the Security Forces –was formally recognised by the award, not just of the Queen’s Gallantry Medal but later of the George Medal too. At the time, only one other serviceman –a bomb disposal officer –held this double distinction.
Notwithstanding his remarkable record, within a few years of leaving the Army Jones was divorced, bankrupt, living rough and forced to sell his medals to make ends meet. A proud and private man, he alerted no one to his plight. Friends and former colleagues, who noticed that he was drinking too much and did not seem himself, assumed this was part of a new undercover persona he had had to adopt, and did not enquire further.
Sadly, the reality, as will emerge later, was different.
Peter Jones, known as PJ, was a wartime baby, one of twin boys born in Poole, Dorset on 21 September 1944 shortly after the Allied Liberation of Paris. His shrewd, pretty mother was from the lovely Devon village of Lustleigh. His father, from nearby Moretonhampstead on Dartmoor, worked for an asphalt company in Parkstone.
The family’s achievements were notable. Both of PJ’s brothers went to university. The elder, David, now deceased, became a senior partner of accountants Price Waterhouse International and lived in comfortable retirement in the British Virgin Islands. PJ’s twin brother is a physicist responsible for the research and development programme of Raychem, a US defence contractor.
Earlier generations of Joneses were interesting too. PJ’s maternal grandfather fought at the relief of Ladysmith in the Anglo-Boer War of 1901, and his paternal great-great-grandfather, Richard Trevithick from Helston in Cornwall, was the famous inventor who converted the first steam engine at a tin mine to run on rails. As PJ dryly recalls, one forebear was the Mayor of Penzance, another a pirate from Penzance.
An active and quick-witted boy with an enquiring mind, PJ was severely handicapped at school by dyslexia. No one recognised the condition then, or even that his learning was impaired. Thus his academic attainments were dismal. Yet a fit, inquisitive and gregarious boy like PJ was exactly the sort of young man the Army sought, although they might not have realised it until his formidable mother drew it to their attention.
One day the teenage Jones appeared before Poole magistrates for pilfering cigarettes from a beach kiosk. His powerful mother, likened by PJ to Margaret Thatcher in full flow, represented him and told the Bench that he would be joining the Army the next day. This was news to PJ. But the Justices were impressed and bound the boy over, enabling Mrs Jones to deliver her son the next morning for enlistment in his local County Regiment.
The Army brings out the best in certain types. It has had decades of experience in encouraging and developing practical and self-reliant young men and women who might, for lack of formal qualification, be considered otherwise unpromising. Army selection staff set greater store by emotional intelligence –EQ –than IQ. The former claims to identify useful practical qualities such as intuition, adaptability and the ability to relate to others, things not assessed by the more usual Intelligence Quotient.
Jones possessed EQ in full measure and easily passed selection. He was enlisted in Exeter on 10 June 1960 into the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment (subsumed into The Rifles in 2007) as a Junior Soldier. This regiment –not showy, but with a fine reputation –prided itself on its close affinity with its counties, its dependability and its family cohesion which, in all ranks, stretched back generations.
PJ’s training began at the Nissen-hutted Heathfield Camp in Honiton, Devon where he made friends easily and relished a more practical and stimulating environment than he had experienced at school. On reaching seventeen and a half –the Army’s definition of ‘adulthood’ –PJ joined the 1st Battalion of his regiment, then stationed on the outskirts of Plymouth. He was drafted into the Signal Platoon because ex-junior soldiers tended to secure the better jobs. Here Jones was required to receive and send Morse code at a minimum of twelve words a minute, but his still undiagnosed dyslexia handicapped his ability to record messages fast and accurately. The results were often incomprehensible, and so he was transferred to the Anti-Tank Platoon, where brawn counted for more than brains.
In the early 1960s the Army was adjusting to the end of National Service. Conscription had provided abundant manpower but this was often poorly directed, even misused. Furthermore, without a clearly defined role or challenge, garrison soldiering in Plymouth was dull, especially for a highspirited young man. But Jones’s fortunes were to change. In July 1963 his regiment was posted to Northern Ireland, where it was due to remain for the next couple of years.
Jones’s unit moved into Palace Barracks, Holywood, in County Down, one of only four regular Army barracks then in the Province, and generally considered the best. Situated a few miles outside Belfast, it had sweeping views across Belfast Lough to the distant Antrim shore. Shorts’ airfield at Sydenham and Harland and Wolff’s shipyard were thriving, and vessels of every size and nationality plied the Lough.
Northern Ireland was then what soldiers called a ‘plum posting’. New arrivals were struck immediately by the people’s friendliness. It was a real pleasure to serve in a place where, unlike naval Plymouth, soldiers were popular. Smiling local girls queued at the barrack gate for the weekly NAAFI dances where the Swinging Sixties swung. There was kudos in marrying a soldier. It afforded opportunities and raised horizons otherwise denied to most local girls, many of whom felt claustrophobic in the Province. Girls single-mindedly pursued partners, and most young soldiers –PJ among them –could hardly believe their good fortune at finding such easy companionship and pleasure.
PJ should have lived in camp, but discreetly broke the rules and slept out locally. With other Devon and Dorset friends, he frequented the bars and night-spots of Belfast. It was through contacts made at SammyHouston’s Jazz Club in downtown Belfast that he met the twenty-one-year-old model, Margaret Power, daughter of a well known Belfast businessman and distiller of Powers whiskey. She would later become his wife.
There were few indicators in the early sixties that the community was deeply divided, or that so massive and ingrained were the resentments on both sides that, within six years, the peace would be shattered, never to be restored during the twentieth century.
Soldiers knew of the IRA, of course. That was why –unusually in the United Kingdom –the police were armed. Yet it was startling to alight from the Liverpool ferry and find a policeman armed with a heavy .303 rifle at the bottom of the gangplank. Equally, new arrivals were intrigued when playing local rugby sides to be told, with a conspiratorial wink, that their opponent’s massively built front row were all good ‘B Men’ –in other words, ‘B Specials’.
The security of military armouries in Ulster was taken particularly seriously, following various IRA break-ins, but otherwise the job was similar to soldiering in England. Yet life was a great deal more relaxed and congenial. Even the Republican pubs and clubs of Belfast, such as Dubarrys, were haunts where PJ and other off-duty soldiers in civilian clothes, as long as they were not quarrelsome, could safely down their pints and join in the rebel songs.
Jones’s agreeable circumstances changed when the Devon and Dorsets were hurriedly deployed to a minor insurrection on the other side of the Atlantic. In the early sixties Britain’s Armed Forces were still deployed around the globe policing the remnants of her former Empire. Trouble had bubbled up in British Guiana, the small Caribbean country on the north-east coast of South America, where the two indigenous communities –African and East Indian –had embarked on a campaign of riot, murder and intimidation.
Nowadays this would be described as ethnic cleansing –and would probably involve the United Nations. But then, the colonial power –with the Governor representing the Queen’s authority –had the responsibility of intervening and restoring order in classical colonial policing style.
In these circumstances, an eager young Lance Corporal Peter Jones arrived up-country at Mackenzie on the Esquibo River to find his Company confronted with the grisly aftermath of an inter-communal massacre, with hundreds of mutilated bodies floating down the river.
Here it was that PJ got his first taste of intelligence work. A native had been arrested, and in an amateurish field interrogation PJ invited him “to spill the beans.”
“We have no beans to eat, man, let alone to spill!” exclaimed the poor suspect indignantly.
PJ’s sojourn in British Guiana was short, but helped him mature. A more grown-up young man returned to Northern Ireland after nine months and rekindled former relationships in Belfast. In January 1966, aged twenty-two, he was married in the Belfast Registry Office to his previous girlfriend, Margaret Power. They honeymooned in Canada, with a week spent at Niagara Falls.
Later that year PJ and Margaret moved with his regiment to Munster in West Germany, which was then one of the British Army of the Rhine’s largest garrisons. By now Jones had been promoted to corporal and was a section commander responsible for eight men in one of the rifle companies.
Service in Germany was monotonous for those who were slack or who had been stationed there too long. However, for the active and adventurous it could be most agreeable. Numerous sporting opportunities were available once the large annual autumn exercises were over. Skiing had the greatestappeal. Each year championships were held in the Alps, where regimental teams headed when the first snows fell. Competition at unit, divisional and army level was keen and standards were high. Even experienced racers found the Downhill Race –usually set on an Olympic or World Cup practice run –a formidable challenge. For novices like PJ, barely in control yet going flat out down seemingly vertical drops, the races were terrifying. Often unable to sleep before a big race and needing all his willpower and courage to get down the course, PJ nevertheless became the highest placed infantry novice. By the end of the season he had proved to himself and colleagues his determination and physical courage.
After four years in Germany, Corporal and Mrs Jones moved to Exeter, where PJ was to train young recruits joining his own and other West Country regiments. This was a normal career progression for a young NCO, offering wider experience and the chance of promotion into the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess. Two years later, PJ returned to his regiment –now back from Germany and stationed at Gillingham in Kent –as Sergeant Jones. That autumn he went to Kenya on exercise, where he was selected to be the Intelligence Sergeant.
The essence of military intelligence is inquisitiveness: burrowing around to make sense of the many random snippets of information gleaned from observation and other sources in order to build up, and hopefully complete, an overall intelligence picture. Another skill is making useful deductions from each new fact or development, by enquiring “So what?” After the novelty and glamour of being ‘in intelligence’ wears off, few soldiers show the patience and tenacity to stick at its painstaking processes. But Jones did. By the end of the Kenya exercise he had established a reputation as a skilled and alert intelligence sergeant. He was soon to be tested.
The most violent years in Northern Ireland were the early seventies. At their height, the Army deployed some 28,000 servicemen and women, some units returning within nine months of their previous tour. Soldiers’ attitudes to service in the Province varied, depending on the number of tours served, whether they were married or single, and where they were deployed. Often they found the work more interesting than barrack routine in garrison towns. Moreover, many a soldier’s career was advanced by a successful tour in the Province, as was the case with Jones.
In 1976 his battalion –already on their fourth emergency tour of Northern Ireland and unaccompanied by their families –was in North Belfast. Their Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) covered the mainly Republican enclaves of the Ardoyne and New Lodge, along with the hard Protestant areas of Whiterock and the Crumlin Road, off which lay both the heavily guarded Law Courts and the austere Crumlin Road Jail.
Because of PJ’s intelligence experience in Kenya and his impressive showing on previous tours in Northern Ireland, he was selected to be the Battalion’s Intelligence Sergeant based at North Queen’s Street Police Station. His commanding officer was the inspiring Lieutenant Colonel Colin Shortis, an officer with an unusually good feel for the subtleties of operations in Northern Ireland and the need to work in partnership with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Furthermore, Shortis had a keener understanding than most of the importance of acquiring intelligence by the unit’s own efforts, rather than expecting it to be delivered from on high.
To achieve this, he vigorously encouraged his Devon and Dorsets to engage with the community, irrespective of local attitudes or persuasions, by –among other things –chatting casually on patrol to passers-by. Many soldiers found this difficult, either because they were self-conscious talking to strangers, or because they considered it pointless in the face of hostile reactions. But Shortis’s initiative broke important new ground and became widely adopted by the British Army as a good practice per se. Terrorists and their sympathisers seeking to impose total control locally were disconcerted by soldiers talking freely in their neighbourhood, for they could never be certain what was being discussed or passed on. Occasionally invaluable nuggets were.
PJ was naturally what the Army called a ‘chatter-upper’. He liked the Irish –his wife was a local, after all –and he understood their colloquialisms and idiosyncrasies. He had a friendly, open and, for a British soldier on operations, unusually easy and relaxed manner. Furthermore, he had a remarkable memory for faces and places. He remembered all those he met, and recalled what they said. Everything he gleaned went first to his own headquarters then up the military chain of command and sideways to the RUC. He operated initially in uniform, but later, when confidence in him was established, was authorised to work in civilian clothes, grow a beard, grow his hair long –as was then the fashion –and mingle unobtrusively. Unselfconsciously at ease, PJ did not find it difficult to blend in, not least because he understood the social scene in Belfast, where he had spent many off-duty hours in the mid-sixties, and where he had courted Margaret.
His local knowledge and the information he gathered was such that he was tasked to identify anyone with existing or prospective links to the various paramilitary groupings who might be encouraged to assist the Security Forces. This was ‘source recruiting’, delicate work of a strategic nature. Not only was PJ putting himself in physical danger, he was opening up the whole national security effort to being manipulated.
Large areas of Belfast in those days –after internment in 1971, and well before the hunger strikes of ten years later –comprised two poor, polarised and disaffected communities in which many separate intelligence agencies trawled for information. At the time, the activities of both the Security Forces and the paramilitaries were poorly controlled.
Intelligence boundaries were ill-defined. Unauthorised efforts to obtain or thwart intelligence were haphazard on both sides, and the greatest risk to someone like PJ was coming to the attention of another undercover agency or a paramilitary gang. But PJ kept his wits about him and, patiently over time, succeeded in forging a drinking companionship with one of the many engaging characters in the clubs and bars of Belfast frequented by Republicans. PJ carefully nurtured this contact, sinking pints until the early hours, and over time their relationship matured into mutual friendship and trust. Neither PJ nor his companion was to know that one day the latter would occupy a position of trust and influence at the very heart of the Provisional IRA.
When the potential significance of PJ’s access was eventually recognised, he was redeployed from his humble role as Battalion Intelligence Sergeant to a higher level, working directly under brigade control. This meant that when his Devon and Dorset colleagues completed their six-month tour and returned to Germany, PJ remained in Belfast. He was content to do so, for he relished the excitement and scope of his work and enjoyed his new status and responsibility.
If the relationship between a prospective source and a potential handler is to develop successfully, their chemistry must be right. This was where PJ’s personality was significant, for there was –and still is today –something unusual about the man. He hasa twinkle in his eye, a casual and unhurried manner, and a wry disrespect for authority; his whole personality attracts those who enjoy mystery and intrigue.
Certainly PJ’s new Republican friend, himself unconventional, was attracted from the outset by this rebellious streak. He would have realised that PJ was not local but, in view of his friend’s familiarity with all things Irish and the quality of his ‘craic’, there was no reason to suspect PJ was in the Security Forces, still less a soldier on duty. Moreover, PJ’s relaxed and easy manner was unthreatening. He did not talk, act or walk like a soldier and he never once asked a direct question or pressed for information. Hence, the Irishman felt under no pressure or obligation. Yet, his curiosity was aroused and he became intrigued by this engaging, hard-drinking friend.
Drinking companions at ease in each other’s company tend to exchange confidences during convivial evenings. It did not take long, therefore, for PJ to sense that his new friend, despite being a Catholic, a Republican and a committed Nationalist, was unsympathetic to the aims and methods of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). This was not inconsistent. PJ knew the IRA was factional and riddled with dissent. Gradually it emerged that his companion had access to them, and occasionally was active on their behalf, albeit at a low level. Equally, at some stage, it must have dawned on the Irishman that his new friend was connected with the Security Forces.
Like a skilled and patient fisherman, PJ read the water well. He bided his time until, intuitively, he judged the moment right to cast his fly. He then hooked and landed his fish. This fish represented the Security Forces’ biggest intelligence breakthrough at the time and, arguably, the Army’s most significant single contribution to the whole campaign. PJ had secured a priceless asset that would run and run.
Within the intelligence community a formal process is routinely undertaken to upgrade a casual contact into a declared source. Its purpose is to register new informants, to verify their identity and authenticate them; to determine their potential value and to decide how and by whom the source was to be ‘run’. This process was conducted at a level far above PJ. It was partly procedural –the proper legal checks and clearances had to be obtained –but also it was to ensure the best outcome by devising suitable cover stories and protection, for both source and handler. Sometimes the intelligence community was faced by circumstances that required normal practice to be modified. For example, agent handlers from the RUC’s Special Branch and from the Security Service, who constitutionally had responsibility for the job, could not effectively run informants everywhere, because they were unable to work alone safely in hard Republican areas. So some operations were passed to the Army, who could function anywhere, and who trained soldiers like PJ (and other service personnel) to undertake these dangerous tasks.
There were other inhibitions too. Some Republican sources refused to deal with any RUC officer because they distrusted members of what they perceived to be a hostile and sectarian force. Likewise, there were other informants who did not relish being ‘run’ by the Security Service because, they claimed, they had little affinity with university graduates, or others with unfamiliar backgrounds with whom they would have to work. Such perceptions and attitudes may seem absurd, but at ground level they were real enough, and their consequences created suspicions and jealousy and impeded the overall intelligence effort.
Having been formally checked out, PJ’s source was given the codename Kerbstone to protect his real identity. This was standard procedure, which ensured that only a handful of people knew an informant’s real name and personal details. Those holding high office were not among them; no government minister, civil servant or military commander would automatically be privy to an agent’s true identity for good reason: source protection and credible denial. The well-tried ‘need-to-know’ principle was widely adopted, and was strictly observed at all levels. Moreover, speculation within the Army about a source’s identity was considered –as it still is –highly unprofessional. As a consequence, the identity of almost all the Army’s Republican agents remained secure throughout the campaign.
The motives of informants varied. Some were at ideological odds with the organisation or cause they once espoused, and wished to harm or destroy it. Others sought personal revenge against an individual or group, for past wrongs or present grievances. Yet others became informants for financial or material reward –though large sums were rarely offered –or through fear or favour. The principal motivation was often to take part in a clandestine enterprise; those living dull, humdrum lives in drab surroundings found the notion of pitting their wits secretly against others irresistible. Almost every source was driven by one of these motives. Kerbstone was no exception, although in his case financial enrichment did not feature prominently.
The credibility of the agent’s handler –male or female –depends on the quality of the informant’s ‘product’, and his or her survival. The handler’s very reputation depends on the delivery of timely and accurate information. Equally, the source has needs too, such as the constant and credible reassurance that he has not been compromised or endangered. All informants agonise about their security being in safe hands. Some imagine that powerful forces are poised atinstant readiness to pluck them from harm; and sometimes this may be true. Good handlers encourage such notions, positively radiating confidence, developing trust and getting to know their sources intimately.
As PJ put it succinctly: ‘In this secret world, the relationship between agent and handler is a marriage –but, a one-sided one. The handler must know everything about his agent: his fears, his personal problems, his concerns about money, how often he has sex, and with whom; his relationship with his wife; and, who he hates within the IRA, and who he likes.’
Most sources want to feel that what they are doing is right, or is at least justifiable in the circumstances; and that their contribution is properly valued. Moreover, they assume that their information is being acted upon. If they perceive that it is not, their morale and commitment is undermined.
PJ’s and Kerbstone‘s partnership flourished. They met regularly in prearranged circumstances, their meetings initiated by either party. What passed between them remains secret. They were both aware of the dangers they faced: of Kerbstone‘s being compromised in circumstances he could not explain and of PJ’s running into a trap and being exposed. The result in either case would be torture and death. Both took prudent precautions under the supervision of an experienced controller or case officer. These extra pairs of ears and eyes, and the additional input to the planning and monitoring of each meeting, or ‘meet’ as it was termed, was reassuring, as was knowing that the resources of one of the Army’s most professional and wiliest organisations were dedicated to their safety. Much thought and care, backed by the latest technology, supported every small detail of their meetings.
Their ‘meets’ might take place in pre-arranged locations, in vehicles perhaps. Each party might approach, as if by chance, on foot or by car from a different direction, and unseen back-up teams would check that neither man was being followed. These back-ups would then secure the meet within a cordon sanitaire. Well-rehearsed procedures existed for aborting meets if there was any question of a compromise. Finally, the informant would always be furnished with a credible explanation for his movements and activities. Nothing was left to chance.
Even so, informants remained anxious, and with good reason. They dreaded falling under IRA suspicion in the aftermath of a failed terrorist operation which could only be explained by some leak or betrayal from within. Traditionally, the IRA’s factions were so prone to dissent and betrayal that suspicion was endemic, and investigations by its sinister ‘Nutting Squad’, charged with carrying out interrogations and executions, were in almost continuous session.
In practice, these personal animosities were the IRA’s Achilles heel, and British intelligence was skilled at exploiting them. It was also adept at supplying credible alibis for sources who might be under investigation or likely to be cross-questioned. For example, a viable justification might be required for an unemployed informant who was known to be broke yet had been seen carrying cash. Even an employed source who was seen to flash unusually large sums of money about might come under IRA suspicion. In such circumstances his handler might provide a winning betting slip so that, when challenged, the agent could explain why suddenly he had money to burn. Furthermore, although informants never knew of the existence or the identity of a fellow source, it could be arranged that one informant would be able credibly to substantiate the alibi of another under suspicion.
An event in May 1977 profoundly shook the Army. Captain Robert Nairac, a twenty-nine-year-old Grenadier Guards officer who had been working undercover in South Armagh on rather too loose a rein, was abducted near the border at the Three Steps Inn at Drumintee, never to be seen again. Investigation revealed he had gone to the pub dressed as a local, and had chatted at the bar. Nairac was a delightful Irish Catholic of singular courage and charm who might have passed anywhere for a Republican, and indeed had done so successfully on many occasions.
It is not known who Nairac planned to meet at the Three Steps that night; possibly, like PJ, he was just hoping to make a casual contact. Whatever his aim, he was identified as an off-duty soldier by a Belfast Republican, who recognised him as a British youth worker who had taught boxing –which Robert indeed had –to lads in the Ardoyne. On impulse several men seized Nairac, bundled him into a car and handed him over to the IRA. After resisting prolonged, brutal interrogation, Nairac was murdered and his body disposed of south of the border. Afterwards, the IRA admitted that he had revealed nothing and had behaved with great courage and dignity.
Fateful swings of the pendulum determine the history of conflict in Northern Ireland and this intelligence setback for the British was counterbalanced by a lucky break in the opposite direction.
Around this time Kerbstone was elevated in the IRA from its fringe to a position where he was privy to its innermost secrets. The rise and fall of IRA volunteers was often abrupt, so this was not unprecedented. But first, the evidence had to be verified. When done, it was apparent that a significant new opportunity for the Security Forces had emerged.
Around the same time, PJ was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal (QGM), the first of his two awards for bravery. Instituted in 1974, the award of the QGM is a rare distinction and a mark of special bravery, of which every recipient can be justly proud.
PJ’s citation records that he had run an agent successfully ‘for longer than any other Army handler in the Northern Ireland campaign, and in … particularly hazardous circumstances.’
Back in England for a break from operations and entirely unconnected with events on the ground, PJ’s promotion prospects, future employability and impending retirement routinely came up for review by the Army Records Office, whose important duty it is to plan soldiers’ careers and, as their service nears completion, their transition to civilian life. Ultimately, Records adjudicate between the Army’s needs and the best interests of each soldier, and, as with a football referee, their decisions may not be gainsaid.
Army Records judged that PJ, now a staff sergeant, had the prospect of becoming a Warrant Officer before retirement. This would be a crucial advancement affecting both status and pension. With the end of PJ’s service only a few years away, Records recommended that he be given the opportunity for promotion through wider responsibilities within his current area of expertise. Consequently, PJ became the Detachment Commander of the unit assigned to the secret collection of intelligence in the notoriously hostile area of South Armagh. In terms of professional challenge this was the equivalent of being given the chance to lead an assault on Everest.
Adjacent to the border with the Republic of Ireland, South Armagh was a uniquely hostile area for the Security Forces in which to operate covertly, as the Nairac case had illustrated. PJ’s days as a ‘loner’ were now gone. Henceforth, he would be responsible for the actions of a small, select team working in the toughest part of the Province, where strangers and anything out of place were quickly reported to the IRA.
With PJ in South Armagh, a dilemma confronted those managing the intelligence war: who would take over responsibility for running his most valuable source? It was anticipated that Kerbstone himself, although not consulted, would not relish a new handler; he seemed only comfortable working with PJ. However, he related well to soldiers in general –visualizing himself as one. He would never accept an RUC handler, nor would he welcome being run by the Security Service. Hence, one of PJ’s most significant duties became to persuade his informant, who could be stubborn, to accept change. He managed to do so, and Kerbstone accepted that he must be prepared to work with another soldier. Even so, it took six months to accomplish a smooth and effective transition.
PJ’s marriage to Margaret had produced one daughter, Jenny. But it became a casualty of his unusual job and lifestyle. They had been living an ostensibly normal life in safe Donaghadee, a dormitory of Belfast, where on days off PJ played for the local rugby club. But his long, anti-social hours at work were not conducive to a stable marriage, his move to South Armagh widened further the gulf between them, and their relationship ended in divorce. As the year ended, PJ’s focus was on taking command of what he assessed to be a somewhat demoralised Detachment in South Armagh, working from a damp, dark basement in Bessbrook Mill. The Mill was a former flax-processing plant near Newry, which had been requisitioned in the mid-1970s as the Army’s main operating base in South Armagh. The Mill itself was massive and forbidding, conjuring up the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake’s Jerusalem.
Commanding soldiers engaged in secret operations (‘covert ops’, as the Army terms them) is not straightforward. The unusual ways of the men and women involved –their initiative, independence and guile –made them uncomfortable bedfellows when living (as was the case in Bessbrook Mill) alongside more conventional soldiers, whose work was a great deal more monotonous. Furthermore, PJ’s detachment was answerable to some distant power, hence the local CO had no authority over them. The potential for trouble existed.
Covert operators in civilian clothes, often unshaven and with long hair –coming and going in unmarked cars at all hours –were often dismissed as ‘cowboys’ by the Bessbrook regulars. In turn, the ‘cowboys’ tended to call anyone in authority ‘Boss’ rather than ‘Sir’ –something which particularly tried the patience of any traditionally-minded regimental sergeant major.
Whereas the need for good intelligence was widely understood, the practicalities of obtaining it and the decisions on whether to withhold or to disseminate it –fully or in part –were often criticised by conventional soldiers. Because of ‘source protection’ the ‘Green Army’ could seldom see any direct, practical benefit to themselves from the effort devoted to intelligence gathering; moreover, when these same soldiers were sustaining casualties tension ran high. This further aggravated the relationship between those operating covertly and those working conventionally.
Whatever the perceptions, the reality was that PJ’s detachment worked extremely long hours under intense pressure and at considerable risk. Evidence shows that he and his team were successfully saving lives and thwarting the terrorists. His citation for the Queen’s Gallantry Medal confirmed it:
‘Under Jones’s leadership his team produced a number of highly valuable items of pre-emptive intelligence, including details of planned targeting of members of the Security Forces, bank robberies and locations of wanted terrorists.’
An incident involving a well known terrorist, Dominic McGlinchy, illustrated the hazardous nature of PJ’s work. McGlinchy, nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’, was a notoriously hardened terrorist who was for several years the successful leader of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a rival Republican terrorist grouping to the IRA. It was INLA who in March 1979 were responsible for the murder of Margaret Thatcher’s good friend and colleague, Airey Neave, then Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, by detonating a bomb under his car at the House of Commons.
A long-term task of PJ’s detachment was to collect intelligence on McGlinchy, which was achieved in part through an INLA informant. Falling under suspicion, the informant was pulled in for questioning by McGlinchy, whose favoured method of inducing suspects to talk was to sit them on the two hobs of an electric stove, then turn the power on.
By this means McGlinchy extracted the time and location of the next ‘meet’ between the source and his handler, and determined personally to assassinate whoever turned up. Volunteering for the role of ‘tethered goat’, PJ took up position at the RV on the Newry Canal, covered by hidden ‘backup’. The plan was that Dominic McGlinchy’s ambush would itself be ambushed. This was a very risky operation and therefore required authorisation from the highest operational level. Waiting there alone, PJ felt distinctly exposed.
As so often happens at tense moments, the unexpected occurred. PJ remembers a black Ford Fiesta approaching. Stopping, the occupants asked PJ the way to Newry. Was this, perhaps, part of McGlinchy’s plan –a reconnaissance, or a distraction of some sort? Was it the trigger for the action to start? Perceptively, PJ quickly assessed that these were lost tourists –the driver a schoolteacher from Kent, accompanied by his young family–genuinely seeking directions. So to prevent his ambush being sprung, PJ barked the code to abort action into his radio, only to find that communications had failed. Fortunately, the back-up covertly protecting him had assessed the situation correctly and remained out of sight.
Dominic McGlinchy never showed up. Perhaps he had seen the car and the exchange and sensed a trap or something else amiss. Whereas that operation was called off, similar ones were mounted later, with PJ invariably acting as tethered goat. As for ‘Mad Dog’, he was subsequently murdered by an unknown IRA assailant in a revenge killing.
PJ’s tour in South Armagh came to an end on completion of his twenty-two years of military service, and was marked by a rare award of the George Medal. In the words of his official citation:
‘Warrant Officer Class 2 Jones has provided an outstanding example of leadership, courage and skill to the entire unit. Tasked with the improvement and expansion of the agent network within the terrorist gangs of South Armagh, he has worked tirelessly and with great success.
‘He has led countless patrols with the aim of improving local contacts … in an area where roulement units spend 4 ½ months [against Jones’s 3 ½ years] this has led to his identification by local terrorists. Despite this, he has on innumerable occasions returned to the area covertly and in civilian clothes to meet informers and agents.
‘Warrant Officer Class 2 Jones personally directed an operation occasioned by information from his own agent, which resulted in the capture of two terrorists, the subsequent arrest of twelve more and the recovery of a large quantity of weapons and explosives.’
On PJ’s last day of service, he was invited to HQ Northern Ireland by a senior member ofhis regiment, (1) ostensibly to bid him farewell at the end of his service, but in fact to throw a celebratory party on the award of his George Medal, in which the Devon and Dorsets took natural pride.
As champagne corks popped, his host, who refrained from asking intrusive questions, assumed that PJ, as a civilian, would somehow be absorbed into the intelligence community to recommence the running of Kerbstone and others. In fact, PJ was to be interviewed that very afternoon for such an appointment. But, having celebrated too liberally, he made a poor impression. Nevertheless, on the strength of his reputation, he was invited back for another interview. But PJ, a proud man as well as an unconventional one, figured that if they did not want him tipsy, they couldn’t have him at all. And so he returned home to Bournemouth without attending another interview.
Now a civilian, he was accountable only to himself. No one in Bournemouth knew of his past, and he mentioned to no one his plans –such as they were –for the future. Moreover, after years of living in danger and under the pressure of being responsible for others, he was enjoying his freedom.
However, he needed a job because he could not survive on an Army pension alone. So he capitalised on his two principal attributes: his ability to relate to people and his powers of persuasion. He approached Allied Dunbar, the local insurance giant, where on interview he was appointed as a self-employed representative selling life insurance.
PJ was a shrewd, hard-working salesman and, as insurance companies generally pay generous commission (sometimes up to 150% of first year premium) to their best people, PJ began to attract a substantial income. But he failed to declare his earnings to the Inland Revenue –not as deliberate evasion, but more through neglect.
For four years PJ prospered, but he lost touch with most of his former colleagues, not because he no longer valued them but because he was too absorbed by making money. Those friends who remained in touch presumed he was working for one of the various security agencies –under the credible cover of being an insurance ‘rep’ –and enquired no further. But eventually the Inland Revenue caught up with PJ and demanded a massive £ 85,000 in arrears of tax. A troubled PJ confided in no one; he began to drink heavily and to sleep rough. Then he lost his job.
In due course he reached a settlement with the Revenue by agreeing to repay a crippling £ 600 per month. But to clear his debt he had to resort to selling his medals. Devoid of cash, assets, employment and friendship, PJ had hit a low. PJ’s George Medal was subsequently purchased by the Lord Ashcroft Trust (the Conservative peer being a well-known collector of VCs and conspicuous bravery medals; his book Special Forces Heroes features PJ and his George Medal).
One day a fellow down-and-out drunkenly extolled to PJ the merits of bankruptcy which, under recent legislation, had eased the recovery from debt. PJ duly went into voluntary liquidation, and, coincidently or otherwise, his luck changed.
He fell under two powerful influences. The first was an intelligent and pretty young undergraduate, Sarah Pennock, who became his girlfriend. The second was a successful former Devon and Dorset, Keith Crawford, who had retired from the Army and had enriched himself by means of some shrewd property redevelopment.
Sarah helped to stabilize PJ emotionally and to control his drinking. Crawford put PJ back on to his feet financially. By embracing these twin influences, PJ slowly regained his confidence and self-respect. He took a job as a Royal Mail postman and, in his spare time,started to write poetry. He wrote Jenny, an apology to his daughter –who he realised had been the real casualty of his broken marriage –for his long absences and his drinking:
The eleventh hour
eleventh day, a
child of mine
saw the world
as cows do.
She will never know
the father who did
not come home and
cannot give the
warmth of his skin.
Jenny plays the games
others will not,
will never shout
“ready or not”.
I had a good war
fed my scarred ego
Inwardly Jenny carries my
red poppy, feeling
the dilution into her blood.
With his dyslexia now understood, and the past behind him, he began to ponder the future. He enrolled at university as a mature student reading English literature and creative writing, the latter including prose, history and poetry. For a man of so little formal education, he found structured learning intriguing and satisfying. He was also stimulated by working and living alongside young undergraduates, and Sarah, at half his age, helped overcome any generational barriers.
In his new surroundings and in a climate conducive to learning, he began to record respectable academic results. He was suited to the process of continuous assessment, as opposed to the instant nature of the school exams he remembered of old. Moreover, as a diligent student who delivered his work on time, he enjoyed the support and encouragement of his tutors.
On graduation PJ gained a Second Class Honours degree. Subsequently he obtained a Masters degree in screenwriting at another university. He had come a long way since thieving from a beach kiosk in Poole half a century before. He served his country with singular distinction and fulfilled his personal aspirations.
As for Kerbstone, he continued to provide invaluable information to the Security Forces after PJ had left the Province. He derived wry satisfaction from being told one day, by one of the few Army officers able to identify him and know of his remarkable contribution, that he was every bit as courageous as PJ, and as such merited equivalent recognition. But neither Kerbstone nor anyone aware of his circumstances imagined that such recognition could ever be bestowed.
(1) The author.