This is an important and historically valuable document. It is the full transcript of the three-day trial in January/February 1992 of Brian Nelson, the UDA intelligence chief who was also a key agent for the British Army’s Force Research Unit, which alongside MI5 and the RUC Special Branch, represented one of the three blades in Britain’s intelligence sword against the IRA.
Which of the three was the sharpest and most deadly blade will long be a matter of debate, but with Brian Nelson of the UDA and Freddie Scappaticci of the IRA’s Internal Security Unit both on their books, the Force Research Unit certainly has a strong claim.
The document below comes in three parts. The first, some 31 pages long, covers the hearing on January 22, 1992, in front of Lord Justice Basil Kelly, a former Attorney General in the pre-Troubles Unionist government, at which Nelson pled guilty to a number of charges, including two counts of conspiracy to murder, arising from his UDA job as its chief of intelligence department.
To call the two day hearing a trial would be something of a misnomer. It became very clear early on in the prosecution’s presentation that a deal had been done. Nelson would plead guilty to a number of offences, especially those in which he admitted not fully informing his British Army handlers, and in return a series of other charges would be dropped and Nelson would get a relatively lenient sentence.
To ensure the deal was delivered a QC representing the British Attorney-General shared a table with the prosecution team, represented by John Creaney QC.
Two charges of first degree murder were dropped and Nelson pled guilty to twenty other offences, including five conspiracy to commit murder counts. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He died in April 2003, not long after his release from prison, reportedly from a brain haemorrhage aged 55. Where he was living and what his circumstances were at the time are still not known.
Much of the remainder of the document, from page 32 onwards, deals with the exculpatory evidence given by the head of the FRU during Nelson’s time, Col. Gordon Kerr. This took place exactly a week later on January 29th, 1992. This part of the document is 44 pages long.
A third part, a short one-day session on February 3rd, 1992 deals with the sentencing of Nelson.
Known initially only as ‘The Colonel’ to the court, but later as ‘Colonel J’, Kerr claimed that Nelson had given information that had led to the saving of some 200 lives, including that of Gerry Adams who the UDA had planned to assassinate with a limpet mine attached to the roof of his car in Belfast city centre.
Adams regularly visited a Housing Executive office and the attack was planned to take place as he left. Of the UDA plan to kill the Sinn Fein chief, Kerr told the court he was convinced that Nelson had saved his life:
I have no doubt whatsoever that that attack might well have taken place without anyone’s knowledge.
Col. Gordon Kerr, a Scotsman and a member of the Gordon Highlanders regiment, who was later promoted to Brigadier and made British military attache at the embassy in Peking, justified Nelson recruitment with these words to the court:
….in order to gain inside knowledge which we desperately need of the terrorist organisations in order that we can save life, that we can prevent attacks taking place, that we can prevent assassinations, that we can make arrests, that we can get recoveries of weapons and explosives, you must have an agent who is in a terrorist organisation.
That was the only time that the subject of ‘arrests’ was raised during the trial. Nelson had saved 217 lives, Kerr claimed, but he made no mention at all of the arrests of UDA activists made as a result of Nelson’s intelligence, or indeed if there had been any at all.
Kerr’s remarks about UDA ‘arrests’ being one of the goals of Nelson’s recruitment raises some important questions.
If one of the purposes of recruiting Nelson had been to put the UDA out of business there surely would have been arrests, lots of them – but arrests in significant numbers only happened after Nelson’s role was exposed to the Stevens team.
Doubtless the valid argument could be made that too many arrests would have raised dangerous suspicions and possibly compromised Nelson; but so would using his information to frustrate murder attempts, which was the other major reason given by Kerr for recruiting the agent. When one operation after another is frustrated, suspicions are bound to sharpen.
I have always suspected that at a time when the UDA was moving more and more towards targeted assassination of Republican activists rather than indiscriminate murder of Catholics, the security forces would be concerned that their agents and informers in the IRA might be lost. Nelson would be useful to give them advance warning and the time to take protective measures.
Nelson’s role was known in detail only to the FRU, senior officers in the RUC Special Branch and two senior figures in MI5; he was run outside the terms of Home Office guidelines on informers which stipulate that such agents must not themselves become involved in criminality.
These restrictions would be impossible to follow in Northern Ireland, Kerr told the court:
(The Home Office guidelines) were more appropriate for dealing with the criminal fraternity in the East End of London rather than the reality of the terrorist situation in Northern Ireland.
Kerr gave monthly briefings based on Nelson’s intelligence, inter alia, to the British Army GOC, the Commander of Land Forces, the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (i.e. head of British intelligence in NI) and various MI5 officers. Sometimes he would also brief the Secretary of State. All in all, Brian Nelson was a very valuable agent.
Here is the trial transcript. Enjoy: