Those of my readers with long memories – and time on this earth to match – will recall the controversy that erupted south of the Border in July 1991 when the IRA killed 37-year-old Co Louth farmer and father of seven children, Tom Oliver, claiming that he had been an informer for the Garda Special Branch.
It wasn’t just that southern political and public opinion saw nothing especially wrong in an Irish citizen assisting the Irish police, but it appeared from post-mortem evidence that Tom Oliver had been badly beaten and that his confession may have been tortured out of him. That went down badly; a beaten man will say anything to stop the pain. And, worst of all of course, seven children had been left fatherless.
A family member was quoted in one report as saying:
“Whoever they were, they thumped him and thumped him to get him to say what they wanted him to say. After the post-mortem a priest said it looked liked they’d dropped concrete blocks on every bone in his body.”
Subsequent reporting suggested that Tom Oliver’s death opened up deep fissures in the community on the Cooley peninsula where the family kept cattle; IRA sympathisers believed the informer charge while family friends and allies did not.
Recently the Gardai announced that they have re-opened the investigation into Tom Oliver’s murder but details are sparse. The police will say only that ‘fresh lines of inquiry’ have been been opened.
The announcement produced something that has become a ritual event whenever an historic IRA killing returns to the headlines. A politician from one of the mainstream Dail parties, either FG or FF, calls on Gerry Adams to come clean, and Adams either denies all knowledge or avoids a direct answer.
This time it was Louth Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick who made the customary call on SF leader Gerry Adams to tell what he and Sinn Fein knew about the Oliver killing.
And Gerry Adams’ response was steeped in the same ritual:
‘Let me be very clear, Sinn Féin has no information about the murder of Tom Oliver.’
The gap between the two seemed unbridgable. Except in this case it is possible to deliver a judgement: Adams’ claim is just not true. The reality is that Sinn Fein has lots of information about the murder of Tom Oliver.
In the weeks and months after the Tom Oliver killing, I had been doing some research on the quite separate killing of another, alleged IRA informer, who had also met his end at the hands of the IRA in south Armagh.
On the evening of July 26th, 199o, a week shorter than a year before Tom Oliver met his end, the body of thirty-year old Patrick Flood, a bomb-maker for the IRA in Derry city was found at the side of a country lane in Newtonhamilton, halfway between Armagh city and Crossmaglen, the capital of what the British media in those days liked to call IRA ‘Bandit country’.
A single shot to the back of the head had killed Flood, his arms had been tied behind his back and a garbage bag had been pulled over his head, the hallmarks of the execution by the IRA of an informer.
A tape-recording of Flood’s confession was later made available to a reporter from The New York Times, evidence the journalist, Kevin Toolis called ‘compelling’ in a lengthy piece for the Times‘ weekend magazine.
For the first time, they (the IRA) allowed an outsider to hear such a recording. (The voice on the hour long tape has been authenticated by a member of the Flood family.) It is a horrifying document, the voice of a man in mortal fear — knowing he is about to be shot. It is the voice of a man who betrayed his comrades not for money or ideology, but for love. “The police were always reminding me about my wife,” he told his interrogators, in a near sob. “They could bring her in at any time. They would break her like a plate. She would go down a long, long time. It was the really big hold they had over me. That really shattered me.”
Toolis also reported that the RUC, off the record, had confirmed the IRA’s charge. It seemed an open and shut case. The IRA had uncovered a well placed police agent in the ranks of the Derry Brigade and he had met the fate that all informers know they risk.
Except, in the autumn of 1991, I was hearing something very different about Patrick Flood, that he was not an informer at all, but had been killed to protect someone of great value and his confession was bogus. Was this true? Possibly, probably not, but worth a look.
In those days we did not know as much as we do now about Freddie Scappaticci, the senior IRA spycatcher who, with the codename Steak Knife, had arguably become Britain’s most valuable double agent deep inside the Provos’ ranks.
Amid the many as yet unproven but widely believed allegations leveled at Scappaticci’s British Army handlers is that on occasion they may have protected real informers by framing, and then turning a blind eye to the killing of innocent IRA activists, i.e. innocent of informing.
In such a way, ‘Fred’, as he was known to the British Army, would help the real informer to survive undetected and the whole panoply of British spies in the IRA would be kept intact.
And perhaps it was just a coincidence that I had begun to hear conflicting claims about Patrick Flood’s guilt not long after Scappaticci’s IRA role had featured in the trial and imprisonment of Danny Morrison, the Sinn Fein and IRA spokesman.
Morrison was convicted (but some years later cleared) of involvement in the abduction of another suspected informer, Sandy Lynch who was being held in a west Belfast house where he was interrogated by ‘Scap’, as the spy was known to his IRA comrades. You can read Morrison’s version of that affair here.
During the Morrison trial, lurid evidence had been given about Scappaticci’s modus operandi. He had, for instance, threatened Lynch that he’d get him down to south Armagh to finish the interrogation; he’d feel a needle jab in his rear end and then wake up, trussed by his ankles to the rafters of a barn somewhere where no-one could hear his screams.
Had Tom Oliver suffered such a fate? And what of Patrick Flood? Had he made his confession after being tortured in this way by Scappaticci? Had he woken up in a south Armagh barn to find himself trapped in a nightmare beyond words?
And so, only dimly aware at that time of all the background to Scappaticci’s activity or importance, I decided that I would need to listen to or read Patrick Flood’s confession. And then we could see where the story led.
So I reached out to the Provos in Derry, Patrick Flood’s home town. Not to Martin McGuinness but to a senior Sinn Fein member, a man who would later play a prominent role both in the peace process and the Good Friday institutions, despite his sometimes embarrassing lack of an IRA curriculum vitae. It is an important part of the story that he was Sinn Fein only.
He said he would see what he could do.
I waited for a while, repeated my request and eventually I heard back from Sinn Fein’s press office in Belfast. If I turned up at a particular address at a certain time my request would be facilitated.
And so I duly appeared. The man who was to accompany me on this mission had replaced Danny Morrison as the main point of media contact for the Provos in Belfast. By this stage Morrison was a guest of Her Majesty at the Maze prison, following his conviction at the Sandy Lynch trial.
I knew my companion more by repute than through any meaningful contact, although our paths had crossed more than once. I won’t name him but I knew him to be fairly senior in the Provos, someone who had been in the H Blocks during the early stages of the protests for political status.
He was married to the daughter of a legendary IRA leader, someone who had been at the top or near the top of the organisation since the Provos’ foundation. I had also once seen him delivering documents to Gerry Adams in the SF centre at Sevastopol Street in the lower Falls.
I remembered the incident well because Adams had lost his temper with this character and subjected him to a torrent of abusive anger in front of his colleagues so violent that I actually felt sorry for him. I was seated out of Adams’ view during this eye-opening episode. It was evident from what I had seen that the SF official worked for and reported to the Sinn Fein president.
So I met the SF press person, he joined me on the passenger seat of my car, I pointed the vehicle towards the M1 and we headed to south Armagh. At Cullyhanna, I was directed into a side street and into the backseat of another car. A hood was slipped over my head and I was told to lie down.
I can’t remember how long the journey took or how many double-backs we made, except that it seemed endless. The hood stank of pig manure, which can resemble the stench of human vomit, and, most disconcerting of all, it had no eye-holes.
This was a garment fashioned not just to confuse an inquisitive journalist but to quieten a condemned man. All I could think was that the last person to wear this hood may have heaved his last not long after it was placed over his head, to be replaced at the last moment by a garbage bag.
Eventually we came to a stop. Still wearing the hood, I was half-assisted, half-carried into what I discovered was a near-derelict cottage. The hood was removed and I was helped into a chair.
On a chair beside me sat another journalist, a local reporter who was, let’s say, renowned for his access to the local Provos; I won’t give his name to save him embarrassment.
Opposite us crouched two characters wearing khaki fatigues and balaclavas over their heads with slits cut at eye-level. Of the three, it was hard to say which was the most unwelcome sight.
It took but a few moments to realise I was the victim of a set-up. This meeting was not about Patrick Flood at all but Tom Oliver. I had been tricked into participating in a stunt designed get the Provos’ version of the murder of Tom Oliver into the media; my companion was chosen because he could get his story into the local Co Louth and south Armagh papers while I was clearly seen as the conduit for the Dublin audience.
At the time that Tom Oliver met his violent end the IRA had hinted that they had uncovered the alleged informer through electronic surveillance. Like most people, I assumed this meant that phones had been tapped, possibly police phones; something quite sophisticated. It had to be, this was the south Armagh IRA after all.
But the real explanation was laughable. Noticing that Tom Oliver made calls from the same phone box at the same time on certain days (presumably after putting him under surveillance), the IRA had secreted an ordinary tape recorder in the booth just before he was to turn up, pressed the record button and hoped for the best. This was, remember, in pre-Android days.
All the IRA had as a result was Oliver’s side of a conversation with his supposed Garda handler. They played a little bit of it to the pair of us but it was a very poor quality recording, all the more difficult to understand because of his country accent. But the IRA men would not make the tape available.
The IRA didn’t have any evidence that Oliver had spoken to a policeman, except that which was implied by the farmer’s side of the conversation. Oliver may have denied the accusation and how could the IRA prove he was lying? Was this why, according to his family, he was beaten; did he admit the charge only to stop the violence? Or was it true?
I was furious when we eventually left but I controlled myself on the journey home. Discretion is the better part of valor, as they say, particularly when you have a duplicitous Sinn Fein press officer as a passenger. To be honest I just wanted to see the back of him asap.
I was determined not to write this story; to do so would reward the worst sort of skullduggery. But this was a difficult time for me at The Sunday Tribune. I was at loggerheads with my editor, who just did not believe my pieces on the still infant peace process (like most of his counterparts in the Southern media in those early days), and I suspected, with reason, that he and others would prefer someone else in my job.
I was, for instance, having weekly rows with a news editor who insisted on knowing who my sources were for every story I filed. Normal practice in most newspapers is that writers are only asked to do this when there is a legal problem or its equivalent. I would refuse and there would be a shouting, or even screaming match. Episodes like these are often the prelude to a sacking.
So, if I imagined that I would tell the story of my sorry expedition to a sympathetic audience, I was to be disappointed. Just write the story, came the order. And so I did, as short as possible and trying as best I could to convey the sordid particulars.
My ruffled feathers are not, however, the reason for this post. It is clear to me, and I hope my readers, that Sinn Fein knew a great deal about the Tom Oliver killing. The senior person in Derry who initiated my excursion probably knew, the SF press office in Belfast certainly knew and so did the people to whom they reported and from whom they got instructions.
Sinn Fein most likely also knew who had interrogated Tom Oliver and who had pulled the trigger. Their chief press officer at the time had taken me to meet them, for goodness sake.
To give him his due, Danny Morrison sent me a message from Long Kesh expressing abhorrence at the way I had been treated. But from Gerry Adams there was not a word.
I do not know whether Gerry Adams was privy to all of this. It is theoretically possible that this all happened behind his back, or that he was away in another part of the country when the scheme was dreamed up.
But in my experience few things happened in Sinn Fein without his knowledge and approval. His press people answered to him, as they still do. Nonetheless I will not call him a liar.
But I would be astonished if he did not know the full background to that unfortunate farmer’s miserable ending or my humiliating expedition to south Armagh. And if he didn’t know it before I ventured into south Armagh, he certainly did afterwards.
As his colleague, the late John Kelly once said of Gerry Adams: ‘Not a sparrow falls from a tree but he does not know it.’ But one thing is clear: Sinn Fein knew a lot about Tom Oliver’s squalid end. To claim that they did not is a falsehood. To that I can attest.