How British Military Intelligence Operated During The Troubles

The description below, of how the British Army organised its intelligence operations during the Troubles which was published in the MacLean report on the killing of Billy Wright, must be regarded as a snapshot of its time, i.e. towards the end of the conflict, and not a definitive portrait of military intelligence throughout the period.

The British Army created a significant number of different units specialising in intelligence work during the course of the Troubles, beginning with the Mobile Reaction Force (MRF) in 1971/72 through to the Force Research Unit (FRU) in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with groups like the Special Reconaissance Unit (SRU) and ‘The Det’ – nickname for the 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company – inbetween.

At the time of the the MacLean report, military intelligence was in the hands of a group called the Joint Research Group (JRG), which was the British Army’s agent running unit:

The Army

The Structure and Role of Army Intelligence in Northern Ireland

5.166 The head of Army Intelligence in Northern Ireland was known as Chief G2, based at HQ NI at Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn. He worked directly to the GOC, and had overall responsibility for all Army intelligence operations in Northern Ireland, for the collection, collation and assessment of intelligence, and for liaison with RUC SB and with the Security Service. All intelligence was studied on a day-to-day basis, with a view to assessing any threats to security forces, particularly from the PIRA, and to consider issues which might affect the political process. The Chief G2 had a direct link with the RHSBs, and with the HSB at RUC HQ at Knock.

5.167 The Army presence in Northern Ireland in the 1990s consisted of three Brigades, arranged on a geographical basis, with 39 Brigade responsible for the Belfast Region. Each Brigade had an intelligence officer, known as the Regional Military Intelligence Officer (RMIO, also known as SO2G2), who worked directly to the Brigade Commander. Below this level came the Battalion. The Battalion Intelligence Officer (IO) was normally a junior officer on a limited deployment of between six months and two years. This person was not an intelligence specialist. Junior staff who undertook day-to-day analysis and collation of intelligence were drawn almost exclusively from the Intelligence Corps.

5.168 The Joint Support Group (JSG) (joint in that it represented all three services), commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel from the Intelligence Corps and with a total membership of a few hundred including civilian personnel, was the Army Source Handling Unit with its HQ based at HQ NI. Its sole function was to run covert agents within terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. JSG personnel did not undertake covert surveillance operations using technical means.

5.169 The JSG was itself sub-divided into five Detachments, or Dets, which corresponded to the RUC SB regions. One Det related to the RUC Belfast Region, and two to each of the RUC North and South Regions. The OC of each Det would normally have a daily meeting with his SB counterpart, and information flowed in both directions, to ensure in particular that intelligence supplied by Army sources was not out of kilter with that provided by SB sources. Information from Army sources was recorded in documents known as Military Intelligence Source Reports (MISRs), produced and graded by the Agent Handler under the direction and guidance of the JSG Det OC. The MISR was then disseminated electronically on the CAISTER/MACER system, with distribution according to the grading of the MISR to the RUC SB and the Army. The Security Service could also access MISRs on MACER. Hard copy MISRs were provided to authorised addressees in certain circumstances.

5.170 The Army intelligence operation was divided into five areas of work, both at HQ NI and at Brigade level: weapons intelligence; assessment staff; special projects; liaison with the RUC; and clerical administration. The key assessment team at HQ NI consisted of a Major and several Captains. There were no military personnel embedded in the RUC Source Units, but a small Army detachment, consisting of one officer and three or four other ranks, was embedded in E3 at RUC SB HQ. The Chief G2 spoke to this group once a week in order to keep abreast of the particular interests and concerns of the RUC.

5.171 For administrative purposes, management of personnel and the provision of equipment there was an Intelligence Corps unit known as the Force Intelligence Unit (Northern Ireland) (FIU). The FIU played no part in the day-to-day operational work at Brigade or Battalion level, but did, for example, manage the Prison Liaison Office (PLO) at HMP Maze. The PLO provided background information, for example about notable paramilitary visitors to HMP Maze and about vehicle movements; the latter could be logged onto a special computer database known as VENGEFUL.

5.172 A great deal of Army intelligence was low-level, gathered by local Army units, and related to such things as vehicle movements and sightings of individuals. The GOC was more concerned with strategic intelligence, but he would also at times receive tactical reporting, especially during the marching season, when tactical intelligence was especially needed to enable the best deployment of troops to be decided.

5.173 Witness AD, an RMIO, told the Inquiry that he received reports from the Battalion IOs, and on the basis of this information he and his staff produced daily and weekly summaries. These were known as Dailies and Intelligence Summaries (INTSUMs). It was the function of the RMIO at Brigade level to assess the importance of the large amount of information coming in from the IOs, given that the Battalion Intelligence Unit was primarily manned by infantry private soldiers and junior NCOs, whereas the Brigade Intelligence Unit was manned by Intelligence Corps personnel with analytical skills. The Inquiry has seen a number of INTSUMs from the period immediately preceding the murder of Billy Wright, particularly relating to the movement of notable INLA members, contact between them and a PIRA member, and particular gatherings at addresses in Belfast. These INTSUMs may have related to the planning of the murder.

5.174 One of the functions of Army intelligence was to prepare ‘pen pictures’ of key paramilitary individuals who were of particular interest to the security forces in Northern Ireland, sometimes at the specific request of the RUC or the NIO. Witness EA (Principal British Army Intelligence Officer) acknowledged that these pen pictures would necessarily be out of date as soon as they were prepared, as new information was constantly coming in. The task of the collator was to keep all the intelligence in an ordered fashion, so that a pen picture which was as accurate and up to date as possible could be produced on demand.

5.175 The Chief G2 attended the weekly IRC meetings (for details see 5.90). Witness EA, who was appointed Chief G2 in 1998, spoke warmly in his evidence to the Inquiry of the good working relationships which existed between the Army, the RUC SB and the Security Service.5.176 Despite the overall impression conveyed by Witness EA of good, harmonious working relationships between the three organisations, there were clearly some underlying tensions. The primacy role of SB in intelligence gathering could cause difficulties, especially if and when SB was critical of the intelligence gathered by Army sources. The RSU would normally have a fuller picture than the JSG handlers, but that would not always mean that the Army intelligence was less accurate or valuable. Witness EA observed that the Northern Ireland intelligence structure had never been consciously designed; it had evolved, from the 1970s through to the 1990s, and this evolutionary process had not taken full account of the increasingly political nature of the conflict, as paramilitary violence gradually gave way to more subtle and sophisticated political negotiations.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.