About two years ago I decided that it was time to replace and update some of my computer equipment, particularly an external hard drive on which I had stored a lot of old material, emails and some sensitive stuff which I wanted to remove to free up memory or to keep out of the reach of undesirables. Amongst the data were articles I had written during my years at The Sunday Tribune.
You might remember the early external drives. The were large and clunky plastic boxes; shake them and they would rattle. The new versions were much smaller and more robust, and many are coated in rubber, which protects them in the event of a fall.
You can probably guess what happened next. As she was closing the blinds one sunny afternoon my wife nudged against the drive on my desk and it fell to the floor. I could not get it working again and although I sent it for repair to two separate sets of experts, the verdict was that the drive was dead and the material stored on it beyond recovery.
Included in the lost Sunday Tribune material was the article that I had written about my encounter in 1991 with the south Armagh IRA, against my will, concerning their killing of Tom Oliver, a Co Louth farmer who the Provos had accused of being a Garda informer.
I recently wrote about the experience here.
The article appeared in the Tribune a quarter of a century ago and when I came to write about the Tom Oliver killing for this blog, my memory of what had happened was predictably short on detail – and I could not consult my lost Sunday Tribune article.
Anyway, fast forward and the story has a happy ending. For other reasons I had begun a search of the house for missing computer files and a few days ago I discovered an old thumb drive. Lo and behold there were all my articles for the Trib, copied from a programme called Lotus to Word but legible nonetheless.
The story on Tom Oliver and my ‘abduction’ by the IRA was recovered and it soon became clear that I had omitted one important detail from my recent blog post.
The evidence against Tom Oliver was a tape recording of phone calls he allegedly had made to his Garda handler. But there was only one voice – belonging to Oliver, the IRA claimed – on the tape. Under questioning the two masked South Armagh IRA men presiding over this ‘press conference’ admitted they hadn’t tapped the phone line, just the phone box. In other words a tape recorder or transmitter had been hidden nearby and it had picked up just the voice of the caller. This was about as low tech as you could get.
I wasn’t the only journalist there. Another reporter, a freelance writer, had also been taken to the meeting. He had daily outlets whereas I was writing for a Sunday paper that would not appear for several days.
(I have debated with myself whether to name this individual but decided not to. That is partly because he was not alone in practicing this sort of ‘make it up as you go along’ sort of journalism during the Troubles; there were quite a few disciples of what you could call ‘the Frank Doherty school of journalism’. Never heard of the late Frank Doherty? You can read about him here.)
By the next day he had sold the story that the IRA now had the technical ability to bug Garda phones to newspapers on both sides of the Irish sea, a claim that was, to put it mildly, a wild exaggeration of the truth and an absurd inflation of the IRA’s technical prowess. The implication was that informers could now be traceable if they used phones to contact their handlers.
It was not what the south Armagh IRA men had said.
They had, it seemed, told the truth about why only one voice was on the tape recording; the freelance reporter was the one who had embellished the story, presumably because that made it more commercial.
I was reluctant to write the story at all, since it was clear that the whole affair was a propaganda exercise put together to justify the IRA killing a father of seven, something the newspaper should not endorse. But that caused an almighty row with the Tribune and I had to give way (a tale for another time).
So I decided to write about the encounter in the way I did, as you can see below, not just because it was the truth, but because I knew this would disappoint those in the Provos who had lied and tricked me into going to south Armagh while countering the nonsense the other reporter had peddled to gullible newsrooms.
(Having said that I am sure that the Provos’ bosses were delighted with my companion’s coverage.)
We know a lot more now than we did then about the background to the killing of Tom Oliver. We know, for instance, that the IRA in North Louth/South Armagh did not want to kill him, had gone to a member of the IRA’s ruling Army Council to make their case for mercy but had been rebuffed. And so Tom Oliver died.
The name of that Army Council member was written down by a PSNI witness at the Smithwick Tribunal and given to the presiding judge at his request; I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I learned that the man whose name is inscribed on that piece of paper had also dreamed up the propaganda exercise which I was tricked into participating.
I have cleaned up the copy and here it is for you to read and enjoy. I don’t know what headline the Tribune subs put on it and the date on the log reads October 6th, 1991, but I can’t be sure how that relates to the actual date of publication.
From Ed Moloney in Belfast
For attention of news editor
The IRA’s efforts to counter penetration of its ranks by the security forces has been unwittingly aided by a number of recent newspaper reports which have erroneously suggested it has the capacity to tap telephone lines used by informers to contact Garda Special Branch detectives.
A propaganda exercise by the IRA has been wrongly exaggerated by some papers to give a false impression of the organisation’s phone-tapping capabilities. The effect may have been to discourage informers from contacting their Garda handlers.
The reports have inaccurately implied that the IRA tapped telephone lines along the Border to trap Tom Oliver, the Cooley, Co. Louth farmer shot dead in July by the IRA who claimed that he was anˇ’informer.
The reports, in Belfast, Dublin and London papers, wrongly implied as well that evidence shown to journalists suggested that the IRA now had a telephone tapping capacity in the South Armagh/Dundalk area which could enable it to collect evidence against informers.
The only evidence shown to journalists by the IRA was that the interior of one public telephone box – but not the line to it – had been bugged by some sort of microphone device. This had happened only after Mr Oliver fell under suspicion and was clearly not part of a permanent or widespread cross-Border phone-tapping operation.
This reporter and a freelance journalist based in the Dundalk area had been taken to a secret location allegedly somewhere in South Armagh and were played a tape purporting to be Mr Oliver talking to his Garda Special Branch handler, a man called Tom Fox.
But the only voice on the tape, which was of poor quality, was that of the man said to be Mr Oliver. The voice of his alleged Garda handler was not on the tape.
The IRA members who played the tape, two unidentified men who wore masks, admitted that only one voice was on the tape because neither the phone line nor the handset had been tapped. This, they said, was because direct interference with the line or handset might have been detected by the security forces.
Instead a bug – in effect a hidden microphone attached either to a small transmitter or a tape-recorder – had been placed somewhere inside what was clearly a payphone box. This sort of operation has been commonplace in the IRA for years and does not represent a technical breakthrough by the organisation.
While the IRA did not appear to attempt to distort the facts or mislead the two journalists over these matters – the two masked men did not try to avoid answering technical questions for instance – this has not prevented inaccurate or exaggerated reports being published.
Several newspapers repeated the wrong assertion that the IRA had claimed it had tapped Border phones. One newspaper mistakenly concluded: “It is quite probable that the IRA has fairly sophisticated bugging equipment”.
None of the reporters who wrote stories about the matter had contacted the Sunday Tribune. It is not known whether the IRA has the ability to tap phonelines but no evidence that the organisation has this expertise was shown to the two journalists.
As it is, it appears the security forces’ ability to detect illicit tapping apparently deters the IRA from widespread monitoring of telephones. The irony of the affair is that the stories that have appeared could not have served the IRA’s interests better had the organisation misled the journalists.
The reports have probably strengthened the impression that the safety of other informers could be jeopardised by the IRA’s ability to monitor or sweep Border phone lines almost at will. Informers often need to contact their handlers speedily to warn them, for example, of a suddenly organised IRA operation or activity.
The safest and most reliable way to do that is by phone but if informers believe they might be monitored by the IRA – as the reports have suggested – they could be frightened into making contact in a riskier way, or even abandon their activities altogether.
The idea that the IRA is monitoring phones on a widespread basis was also undermined by the IRA men’s own admission, when questioned by The Sunday Tribune, that the phone box was bugged only after Mr Oliver came under specific suspicion.
One of the IRA men claimed that Mr Oliver was in a small ring of people suspected of passing information to the authorities about the movements of guns and explosives. He was said to have been fed false information about a bogus IRA operation and was then followed.
The man claimed he immediately went to a phone booth where he made a call, an action which heightened the IRA’s suspicions and led to them bugging the booth.
Although the IRA claimed other locations had been monitored, the tape played by the organisation – which lasted some 15 minutes and consisted of three separate conversations – provided evidence only that one phone box had been bugged.
The caller gave the other party the same number, evidently that of a public callbox, during each conversation in case he ran out of money. The heavy accent of the man speaking on the phone together with considerable extraneous noise made it difficult to understand much of the tape.
Nevertheless it was clear that the man was discussing movements of IRA cars and vans as well as IRA personnel – whom he called the boys – and explosives dumps. The IRA members claimed that they had uncovered evidence of MrOliver’s relationship with the Garda Special Branch two years ago.
They had not moved against him, the men claimed, but kept him undersurveillance in order to discover details about the priorities and modus operandi of the Garda Special Branch. No independent evidence was,ˇa’provided to support this contention.
The IRA men claimed that Mr Oliver confessed to being an informer -an allegation denied by the Gardai and his family – after being confronted with tapes of the phone conversations. They also claim that he had agreed to work for the Special Branch in 1985 after he was caught with no road tax on his car and had provided information on safe houses, IRA members and sympathisers and movements of explosives.
The killing of Mr Oliver provoked an outcry in the Republic and a protest rally against the IRA was organised in the Cooley area. It is probable that the organisation’s decision to release details of the phone box bugging episiode was influenced not just by a desire to discomfort other informers but to persuade people in what is one of the IRA’s most important bases that they shot the right man.