British Army Knew About IRA ‘Unknowns’ Months Before Disappearances Began

British Army intelligence chiefs knew that the IRA had a secret unit called “the Unknowns” several months before the unit began disappearing people whose killings the IRA wished to keep secret, according to an official British record.

(The Guardian has picked up the story which can be read here)

A declassified British Army document on file at the national archives at Kew in Surrey, England – compiled on behalf of British Army Headquarters in Northern Ireland – shows that military chiefs evidently knew about “the Unknowns” as early as April 1972, between three and four months before the IRA disappeared Joe Lynskey, the first victim of the practice, and eight months before widowed mother-of-ten Jean McConville was abducted, killed and buried in a secret grave in Co. Louth.

Joe Lynskey

Evidence of military knowledge of the unit is contained in a log of incidents compiled at British Army headquarters at Thiepval barracks, dated April 25th, 1972. The document would have been prepared for the Army’s most senior personnel and staff, including its commanders, and it recorded the most significant incidents and events occurring daily in the military’s three brigade areas in Northern Ireland.

The log includes a report of an armed robbery carried out by three men, apparently members of an IRA unit which, at 9:28 a.m. on that day, was intercepted by soldiers who arrested the trio and recovered one pistol. The robbery was in Manor Street in the Oldpark district of the city but the precise target was not identified.

The document describes one of the men as: ‘vol “the Unknowns”’, i.e. a volunteer in “the Unknowns”. This suggests that not only did the military know about “the Unknowns” but may have been aware of the unit’s membership. The man’s full name and address is being redacted by which will refer to him in this report only by his first name, ‘Gerald,’ for his  safety.

The grave site in Co. Louth where the remains of Jean McConville were discovered

The two other men were Peter McAwley (sic) of Jamaica Street and Bernard Logan of Brompton Parade, both in Ardoyne. The question of whether these two were also involved with “the Unknowns” is not addressed in the document.

The document is reproduced below:

The relevant section highlighted:

Two weeks ago this reporter visited ‘Gerald’s’ home, which is in North Belfast, and by telephone from a relative’s house which he was visiting, ‘Gerald’, who is now 68-years old and retired, confirmed that he had indeed been a member of the North Belfast unit of “the Unknowns”.

He described it as a unit which was made up of people whose membership of the IRA was still a secret to the authorities – although in his case that appears not to have been the case. He also said he had undertaken ‘operations’ while a member of “the Unknowns”.

‘Gerald’ was tried and convicted of the attempted armed robbery in Manor Street and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, which he served in the Long Kesh prison complex.

‘Unknowns’ commander, Pat McClure, relaxing at an Irish festival in Connecticut

The revelation that the British military had enough knowledge of the unit to quickly identify one of its members begs some obvious and potentially difficult questions for Whitehall: how and what did the army know about the unit, did they have a source inside “the Unknowns”and, crucially, what, if anything, did the military know about the IRA’s practice of disappearing people?

The information about the IRA unit contained in the Army document broadly mirrors knowledge already in the public arena. According to former members of the unit there were two cells of ‘”the Unknowns” in Belfast in 1972; one was in West Belfast commanded by Pat McClure, the other in North Belfast, commanded by the late Larry Marley, a legendary figure in Provisional mythology.

Marley is best known as the brains behind the mass IRA escape from the Maze prison in 1983 when 38 prisoners broke out of the heavily guarded jail. His role was recently dramatised in the 2017 movie ‘Maze‘. He was later shot dead at his home in Ardoyne by Loyalists.

The architect of the 1983 mass IRA break out from the Maze prison, Larry Marley was also the commander of the North Belfast unit of “the Unknowns”.

The disappearances were all carried out by the West Belfast unit of “the Unknowns”; the North Belfast cell was not involved, as far as is known, in this activity.

The West Belfast unit was given the task of ferrying people condemned to death by the IRA to secret graves on the southern side of the Border. That unit’s commander, Pat McClure, who was arrested and interned in early 1973, emigrated to America over three decades ago where he died a few years later of lung cancer.

McClure Grave2

Pat McClure’s gravestone in Connecticut, USA. Unlike ‘the disappeared’ his burial place is marked

Four people – Joe Lynskey, Kevin McKee, Seamus Wright and Jean McConville – were disappeared in 1972, the year the practice began.

Orders were allegedly handed out by Gerry Adams, who was made Belfast commander of the IRA following a failed ceasefire in the summer of 1972. However a month before the intercepted Manor Street armed robbery, Adams was arrested by British troops and interned at Long Kesh. He was released some four months later so he could participate in the July 1972 IRA ceasefire talks with British ministers.

The job of driving victims to their deaths was given to the late Dolours Price.

Adams has denied any involvement or part in the disappearances, while Price has admitted her role.

The British Army log has an intriguing entry under the heading “Action” which indicates that the information that ‘Gerald’ was a member of “the Unknowns” was passed on to “PR” to deal with.

Colin Wallace, pictured during his time as a British Army press officer

While “PR” ostensibly stands for “public relations”, in those days it more likely meant that the information should be referred to the military’s psy ops (psychological operations) branch, otherwise known as the Information Policy Unit (IPU), which operated from Thiepval barracks, the British Army’s HQ in Northern Ireland.

Put crudely, the IPU’s job was to disseminate propaganda to the media designed to undermine paramilitary and political groups opposed to British policy. One of the IPU’s public faces in the early days of the Troubles was Colin Wallace.

The following letter from a Brigadier Mark Bond of the Ministry of Defence to Rear-Admiral ‘Teddy’ Gueritz, dated August 5th, 1971, makes it clear what British policy on Military Psy Ops in Northern Ireland was. Gueritz was the commander of the Joint Warfare Establishment in Old Sarum, Wiltshire which was then the training centre for British psychological warfare operations.

The letter reads in part:

Our policy is that we do conduct Military Psy Ops in Northern Ireland. (By definition Psy Ops can be employed to influence enemy, friendly or neutral groups, or individuals – all exist in Northern Ireland.)

What the IPU did with the information about ‘Gerald’ and “the Unknowns” is not disclosed in the currently available files lodged at Kew. But in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it would appear that the IPU did nothing with the information. It may be that someone in the military decided it was better to keep quiet about “the Unknowns”.



16 responses to “British Army Knew About IRA ‘Unknowns’ Months Before Disappearances Began

  1. Pingback: The ‘Unknowns”-part of the Scappaticci world? – seftonblog

  2. An alternative explanation is that ‘Gerald’ broke, spilled the beans and identified himself as a member of the ‘Unknowns’.

    • In which case the British still knew about the unknowns months before the disappeared began. yes? i doubt that he did cough as there was no need to; he’d been caught red-handed in a robbery and he still got 7 years. but it makes no odds……

  3. Well, if he did break, it would depend on how much he gave them. In one scenario, he could have given them not only his own role, but the names of others and a full breakdown of the Unknowns’ role and activities.
    In another, he could have merely admitted his own involvement, named nobody else and given his unit as ‘the Unknowns’, which may or may not have meant anything to his interrogator.
    In 1972, the height of the Troubles, the significance of that term may not have been realised by people who were overwhelmed by the full-scale insurrection taking place around them.

    • Maybe he told them nothing at all; you say ‘break’ when he’d been caught red-handed and a gun was recovered; there was nothing to break. I sense you are reluctant to entertain the obvious, which is that they already knew about the unknowns…..this is exactly why i was reluctant to name him, that he would be scapegoated in some way…..and if this was the first time the military had come across the unknowns, don’t you think there would have been evidence of that in the log entry? Instead the unknowns term is used in a way which suggests familiarity not newness.

  4. It is entirely possible that he may not have broken. However, given the nature of the treatment routinely meted out to those arrested at that time, it is also possible that, like so many others, he may well have been prevailed upon to talk by physical means of coercion above and beyond the threat of imprisonment after being caught red-handed.
    I am not reluctant to entertain the possibility that they knew about the Unknowns. They may very well have known. But nor do I think it is necessarily obvious that they did.
    Furthermore, given the ubiquity of nicknames in working-class republican areas of Belfast and the sheer scale of 1972’s daily violence, the name of the ‘Unknowns’ could have been hurriedly scribbled down, then disregarded as no more significant than Brendan Hughes’ Lower Falls unit being called ‘The Dogs’.

    • Anything to avoid the obvious, yes? Which is that the British process of building up an informer base in the Provos was already well under way by esrly 1972. Why were the Unknowns disappearing people that year if there was not already an informer problem? Psrt of the reason, I have always believed is that the leadership did not want to admit they had an informer problem. And you are now doing exactly the same, seeking refuge in denial of the carbuncle everyone else can clearly see.

      • Why is there such reluctance from some to admit the Brits had infiltrated the IRA?

        Pride in the IRA? Denial that their mates could be touts? Not wishing to admit the IRA lost the intelligence war? It’s weird.

      • I couldn’t agree more. Some of them also believe their leaders were Gods and gods cannot ever have clay feet…..

  5. If we also bring into consideration Nuala O’Loan’s report which lists that:

    * On 13 March 1973 information was received from the military suggesting that the abduction was an elaborate hoax;


    * On 24 March 1973 further information was received from the military stating that the abduction was a hoax, that Mrs McConville had left of her own free will and was known to be safe.

    it would seem that there was a well placed source in the Unknowns and the army didn’t want that little secret being given away. Hence the disinformation about her disappearance.

  6. Intriguing, War’s underbelly is indeed vast and not for polite company.
    Good reporting, appreciate it.
    Also intriguing would be a comparative analysis with other similar wars of decolonization especially those of the British empire and their standard operational procedures and not so standard?

  7. Raymond Rivera

    I worked at CTDOC during the 80’s with McClure. He seemed like a real decent guy.

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