By Ed Moloney and James Kinchin-White
Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee were members of ‘D’ Company in the IRA’s Second Belfast Battalion and both were sentenced to death, apparently in their absence and possibly at secret courts martial, in late 1972/early 1973, after they admitted working for a secret British military undercover unit known as the MRF, the precise meaning of which initials is still a debating point many years later.
The evidence that their juridical experience at the hands of the IRA was most likely clandestine is that they both went on the journey to their deaths believing that they had been given immunity in return for coming clean about their treachery. When they were ferried across the Border to their deaths by Unknowns’ member Dolours Price, they believed they were going for some R&R.
The MRF, established by British Army Belfast commander General Frank Kitson, was an elite military unit active in the early 1970’s which also recruited paramilitary ‘Freds’ as informers cum accomplices used primarily for spotting and identifying colleagues.
The initials MRF were explained in a House of Commons exchange as meaning ‘Military Reaction Force’ but as one of the letters below explains, there was a reluctance to spell out the real meaning amongs its commanders and it might be prudent to treat that parliamentary explanation with caution.
The MRF is also believed to have patrolled Belfast in civilian vehicles on the hunt for well known paramilitary figures to assassinate. Brendan Hughes describes how he narrowly escaped death in a frantic chase from suspected MRF gunmen in the lower Falls area of Belfast.
Once McKee and Wright had confessed they were dispatched across the Border to be killed, although the plan did not go according to schedule.
The local IRA unit into whose hands they had been delivered apparently grew to like the pair and socialised with them – McKee was apparently a good cook which further endeared the two men to their captors – and could not bring themselves to do the deed. So eventually a gunman from Belfast was sent for, they were shot dead and their bodies hidden in secret graves.
Their bodies were eventually found some 43 years later in a bog in Co Meath.
The late IRA leader and hunger striker, Brendan Hughes was intimately involved in the intelligence operation which uncovered Wright and McKee and which also led to the Four Square Laundry spying operation, which was hailed by Republicans as a major blow against British intelligence and a personal triumph for then Belfast commander Gerry Adams.
Hughes was angry and disappointed when he heard about the deaths of Wright and McKee. He had given both men a guarantee that they would not be harmed if they came clean about their experience with the MRF, which apparently they had.
This what he had to say in his Boston College archive interview with Anthony McIntyre:
You have to understand that McKee and Wright believed they had been given immunity and [afterwards] they were taken away across the border where they were held for weeks and weeks. The order was given for them to be put down. I didn’t give the order and I felt betrayed … There was no purpose in killing them; it was pure revenge … I don’t know who gave the order for them to be executed … I can’t say for sure who took the decision. I know they were supposed to be dead and weeks later we found out they were not dead and the order was reinforced. Apparently the people who were holding them, now this is hearsay on my behalf … the people who were holding them liked them and couldn’t kill them and so people were sent from Belfast to do the actual execution. Seamy Wright’s sister was a very prominent Republican and the sad thing about it is that for years I knew the two of them were dead but I couldn’t tell anybody. I was in prison in Long Kesh when Eileen came to visit me; her sister was Seamy Wright’s wife. They hadn’t been told a thing so I took it upon myself to tell Eileen that Seamy was dead. The same thing with the McKee family.
Documentary evidence that Kevin McKee was an informer has already emerged in the form of an entry in a so-called ‘watchkeeper’s log’ kept by the Kings Own Scottish Borderers regiment in February 1972. It records a raid on an IRA arms dump facilitated by intelligence provided by McKee. You can read about that here and here.
The two letters reproduced below, one a Ministry of Defence minute prepared on May 23rd, 1973 for the trial of an MRF member Sgt Clive Williams for the murder of Patrick McVeigh; the other a response to that minute written eight days later both have Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee as IRA informers, or as the first document calls them ‘turned terrorists’.
What we still don’t know is why they were ‘disappeared’ rather than killed publicly as informers normally were in a bid to deter others from following their example. That they were informers seems now to be beyond doubt.